Rule of Literal Construction


Rule of Literal Construction

Rules of Interpretation | Construction

Over a period, certain rules of interpretation/construction have come to be well recognized. However, these rules are considered as guides only and are not inflexible. These rules can be broadly classified as follows:


• Rule of Literal Construction

• Rule of Reasonable Construction

• Rule of Harmonious Construction

• Rule of Beneficial Construction

• Rule of Exceptional Construction

• Rule of Ejusdem Generis


(B). Secondry rule 

• Effect of usage

• Associated Words to be Understood in Common Sense Manner

Rules of interpretation

(A) Primary Rule

(1) Rule of Literal Construction:

It is the cardinal rule of construction that words, sentences and phrases of a statute should be read in their ordinary, natural and grammatical meaning so that they may have effect in their widest amplitude. At the same time, the elementary rule of construction has to be borne in mind that words and phrases of technical nature are ‘prima facie’ used in their technical meaning, if they have any, and otherwise in their ordinary popular meaning.

When the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous and admits of only one meaning, no question of construction of a statute arises, for the Act speaks for itself. The meaning must be collected from the expressed intention of the legislature (State of U.P. v. Vijay Anand, AIR 1963 SC 946). A word which has a definite and clear meaning should be interpreted with that meaning only, irrespective of its consequences.

Sometimes, occasions may arise when a choice has to be made between two interpretations – one narrower and the other wider or bolder. In such a situation, if the narrower interpretation would fail to achieve the manifest purpose of the legislation, one should rather adopt the wider one.

For example, when we talk of disclosure of the nature of concern or interest, financial or otherwise’ of a director or the manager of a company in the subject- matter of a proposed motion (as referred to in section 102 of the Companies Act, 2013),

we have to interpret in its broader sense that any concern or interest containing any information and facts that may enable members to understand the meaning, scope and implications of the items of business and to take decision thereon.

Whatever, What is required is a full and frank disclosure without reservation or suppression, as, for instance where a son or daughter or father or mother or brother or sister is concerned in any contract or matter, the shareholders ought fairly to be informed of it and the material facts disclosed to them.

Here a restricted narrow interpretation would defeat the very purpose of the disclosure.

Further, the phrase and sentences are to be construed according to the rules of grammar.

This was emphasized in no uncertain terms by the Supreme Court in the case of S.S. Railway Company vs. Workers Union (AIR 1969 S.C. at 518) when it is stated that the courts should give a literal meaning to the language used by the legislature unless the language is ambiguous or its literal sense gives rise to any anomaly or results in something which may defeat the purpose of the Act.

It is the duty of the court to give effect to the intent of the legislature and in doing so, its first reference is to the literal meaning of the words employed. Where the language is plain and admits of only one meaning,

there is no room for interpretation and only that meaning is to be enforced even though it is absurd or mischievous, the maxim being ‘absoluta sententia expositore non indiget’ (which means a simple preposition needs no expositor i.e., when you have plain words capable of only one interpretation, no explanation to them is required).

Similarly, when a matter which should have been, but has not been, provided for in a statute cannot be supplied by courts as to do so would amount to legislation and would not be construction.

For example: Section 71 of the U.P. District Boards Act, 1922 provided that a Board may dismiss its secretary by special resolution which in certain cases required sanction of the Local Government. Section 90 of the same Act conferred a power to suspend the secretary pending, inter alia, the orders of any authority whose sanction was necessary for his dismissal.

Section 71 of the Act was amended in 1931 and it then provided that a resolution of dismissal was not to take effect till the expiry of the period of appeal or till the decision of the appeal, if it was so presented. However Section 90 of the Act was not correspondingly amended.

The Supreme Court observed that it was unfortunate that when the legislature came to amend the old Section 71 of the Act it forgot to amend Section 90 in conformity with the amendment of Section 71.

The Court, however emphasized that while no doubt it is the duty of the Court to try and harmonise the various provisions of an Act passed by the legislature, it is certainly not the duty of the court to stretch the word used by the legislature to fill in gaps or omissions in the provisions of an Act.

However, sometimes the courts may look at the setting or the context in which the words are used and the circumstances in which the law has come to be passed to decide whether there is something implicit behind the words actually used which would control the literal meaning of the words used.

If there are two possible constructions of a clause, one a mere mechanical and literal construction based on the rules of grammar and the other which emerges from the setting in which the clause appears and the circumstances in which it came to be enacted and also from the words used therein, the courts may prefer the second construction which, though may not be literal, may be a better one. (Arora vs. State of U.P., AIR 1964 S.C. 1230 at 1236-37).

Words used in the popular sense: It dealing with mattes regarding the general public, statute are presumed to use words in their popular sense. But to deal with particular business or transaction, words are presumed to be used with the particular meaning in which they are used and understood in the particular business.

However, words in statutes are generally construed in their popular meaning and not in their technical meaning.

It is the general rule that omissions are not likely to be inferred. From this it brings another rule that nothing is to be added to or taken away from a statute unless there are some adequate grounds to justify the inference that the legislature intended something which it omitted to express.

“It is a wrong thing to add into an Act of Parliament words which are not there and, in the absence of clear necessity, it is a wrong thing to do.” If a case has not been provided for in a statute. It is not to be dealt with merely because there seems to be no good reason why it should have been omitted, and the omission appears to be consequentially unintentional.

Reasonable corrections are not to over-ride plain terms of a statute. A construction that will render ineffective any part of the language of a statute will normally be rejected.
For example, if an Act plainly gave a right of appeal from one Court of Quarter Sessions to another, it was held that such a provision though extraordinary and perhaps an oversight could not be eliminated.
This Rule of literal interpretation can be read and understood under the following headings:

(I). Natural and grammatical meaning:

Statute are to be first understood in their natural, ordinary, or popular sense and must be construed according to their plain, literal and grammatical meaning. If there is an inconsistency with any express intention or declared purpose of the statute, or it involves any absurdity, repugnancy, inconsistency, the grammatical sense must then be modified, extended or abridged only to avoid such an inconvenience, but no further. [(State of HP v. Pawan Kumar(2005)]

Example: In a question before the court whether the sale of betel leaves was subject to sales tax. In this matter SC held that betel leaves could not be given the dictionary, technical or botanical meaning when the ordinary and natural meaning is clear and unambiguous.

Being the word of everyday use it must be understood in its popular sense by which people are conversant with it as also the meaning which the statute dealing with the matter would attribute to it. Therefore, the sale of betel leaves was liable to sale tax. (Ramavtar V. Assistant Sales Tax Officer, AIR 1961 SC 1325)

(II) Explanation of the Rule:

When it is said that words are to be understood first in their natural, ordinary or popular sense, it is meant that the words must be qualified that natural, ordinary or popular meaning which they have in relation to the subject matter with reference to which and the context in which they have been used in the statute.

The meaning of a word depend upon its text and context. In the construction of statutes, the context means the statute as a whole and other statutes in pari materia (where two enactments have common purpose in an analogous case).

Example: In construing of the Andhra Pradesh General Sales Tax Rules, 1957, the words “Livestock” means all domestic animals will not include ‘chicks’ construing in the popular sense although in literal sense animal refers to any and every animate object as distinct from inanimate object. (Royal Hatcheries Pvt. Ltd v. State of AP, AIR 1994 SC 666)

(III) Exact meaning preferred to loose meaning:

This is the another point regarding the rule of literal construction that exact meaning is preferred to loose meaning in an Act of Parliament. As every word has a secondary meaning too. Therefore, in applying this rule one should be careful not to mix up the secondary meaning with the loose meaning.

Wherever the secondary meaning points to that meaning which statute meant, preference should be given to that secondary meaning.

Example: Word ‘obtain ’in it general sense means some request or effort to acquire or get something but its secondary meaning is to acquire or get without any qualification and if in a statute the secondary meaning is preferred, it cannot be said that preference has been given to loose meaning.

(IV) Technical words in technical sense:

This point of literal construction is that technical words are understood in the technical sense only.

Example, in construing of word ‘practice’ in Supreme Court Advocates Act, 1951, it was observed that practice of law generally involves the exercise of both the functions of acting and pleading on behalf of a litigant party.

When legislature confers upon an advocate the right to practice in a court, it is legitimate to understand that expression as authorizing him to appear and plead as well as to act on behalf of suitors in that court.(Ashwini Kumar Ghose V. Arabinda Bose AIR 1952 SC 369)


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