tex·​tu·​al·​ism ˈteks-chə-wə-ˌli-zəm How to pronounce textualism (audio)
: strict or rigid adherence to a text (such as the text of the Scriptures)
specifically, US law : a legal philosophy that laws and legal documents (such as the U.S. Constitution) should be interpreted by considering only the words used in the law or document as they are commonly understood
Justice Scalia of the United States Supreme Court has championed an approach called textualism. Scalia and others argue that legislative history should rarely be relevant, in essence advocating sentence meaning over speaker's meaning. To be more exact, textualism claims that it does try to discover the intent of the legislature, but limits this inquiry to the text of the statute itself. Peter M. Tiersma
compare originalism
textualist adjective
a textualist interpretation
textualist noun
plural textualists
Textualists focus on the meaning of words and eschew more abstract inquiries about the law's purposes. Marc O. DeGirolami

Examples of textualism in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web On the Supreme Court, Justice Gorsuch has embraced his predecessor’s interpretive methodologies of originalism, which looks to the meaning of the Constitution when it was adopted, and textualism, which focuses on the words of federal statutes. Adam Liptak, New York Times, 15 June 2023 In different but complementary ways, the two justices argued that Alito’s adherence to textualism is a sham. Matt Ford, The New Republic, 25 May 2023 Proponents of originalism and textualism often describe those schools of jurisprudence as the one true way to interpret the Constitution or to read federal laws, respectively—a rhetorical trick that renders all alternative approaches illicit by default. Matt Ford, The New Republic, 10 May 2023 Anita Krishnakumar, a Georgetown University law professor, also noted on a legal blog that both the majority opinion and Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurring opinion run counter to many of the principles of textualism, the method of reading federal laws that conservatives have championed. Matt Ford, The New Republic, 24 Jan. 2022 Their appointments all but ensure not only a conservative majority on the Court for years to come but also the transmutation of Scalia’s jurisprudence—based on the principles of judicial restraint, originalism, and textualism—from an outsider legal theory into a mainstream constitutional doctrine. Noah Feldman, The New York Review of Books, 17 Dec. 2020 The Federalist Society had brought the legal doctrines of originalism and textualism — close readings of laws and the Constitution to adhere to the intent and words of the authors — into the mainstream. Andy Kroll, ProPublica, 9 Mar. 2023 Alito has been guided by his strict adherence to textualism, or emphasizing the words of a law as written. Orlando Mayorquin, USA TODAY, 21 Apr. 2022 In a 2015 appearance at Harvard Law School, Justice Kagan said that textualism had triumphed across the ideological spectrum. Adam Liptak, New York Times, 30 June 2022 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'textualism.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


textual + -ism

First Known Use

1847, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of textualism was in 1847

Dictionary Entries Near textualism

Cite this Entry

“Textualism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/textualism. Accessed 3 Dec. 2023.

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