On November 4, 2016, 86 Phoenix Society members and guests gathered at the University Club in Chicago for the annual Phoenix Society luncheon.

Denise Chan Gans, senior director of gift planning, gave a warm welcome to guests before introducing Mary Louise Gorno, MBA’76, university trustee and Phoenix Society chair. Gorno shared some of the Phoenix Society’s successes over the past year, including the addition of 141 new members. Gorno also provided updates on the University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact, noting “with a smile on her face” that the University has raised $3.37B, more than 75 percent of the $4.5B goal.

Following lunch, Jason Merchant, the Lorna Puttkammer Straus Professor in Linguistics and the College, presented his lecture, “The Use and Abuse of Linguistics at the US Supreme Court.” In summary, legal reasoning in the United States has recently taken a linguistic turn, with heavy and increasing use of linguistic reasoning and dictionaries in courts from the Supreme Court on down, largely due to the increased prominence of originalism as a guiding legal philosophy. But these tools must be used with care, and the practitioners of these techniques are apt to reach erroneous conclusions. Merchant discussed how more accurate use of large-scale data-mining techniques such as the Google Ngram corpus leads to conclusions in conflict with decisions the courts have handed down.

Watch the full event.

Read the transcript (PDF).

About Jason Merchant

Jason Merchant, the Lorna Puttkammer Straus Professor in Linguistics and the College, works primarily in the theory of syntax and on its interface with semantics and morphology. Most of his research concentrates on the crosslinguistic grammatical constraints on ellipsis, cases in which the form seems to underdetermine the perceived (and intended) meaning.

He is interested in data from a wide variety of languages but has published mostly on Germanic, Greek, Slavic, and Romance languages. He is the author of two books and numerous journal publications and other articles. Merchant joined the UChicago faculty in 2001. He has served as deputy dean of the Division of the Humanities since 2013 and this year will complete two years as chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Previously he served as director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Linguistics, from 2001 to 2008.

Merchant is a member of several scholarly editorial boards. In 2012 he received the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and is currently a fellow with the Neubauer Collegium for Society and Culture.

Merchant earned his bachelor of arts from Yale University and his PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz.