Kyle Rittenhouse might have been convicted if the judge overseeing his murder trial preferred a different dictionary.

Judge Bruce Schroeder received reams of criticism (and also effusive praise) for many of his decisions throughout Rittenhouse’s trial to slant the proceedings in favor of the defendant. But perhaps none was more scrutinized — or inscrutable — than his decree that prosecutors were not allowed to refer to Joseph Rosenbaum or Anthony Huber — whom Rittenhouse killed with an AR-15-style rifle — as victims.

“The word victim is a loaded, loaded word. And I think alleged victim is a cousin to it,” Schroeder said, indicating that the antiseptic terms complaining witness or decedent were perfectly acceptable replacements. At the same time, he ruled that it was fine to call Rosenbaum and Huber “arsonists,” “looters,” or “rioters.”

The Merriam-Webster definition of victim — “one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions” — seems to plainly describe Rosenbaum and Huber, making Schroeder’s decision seem baffling.

But not all dictionaries agree. And the Oxford English Dictionary could cause some to say that just maybe, Schroeder has an argument.

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“A person who is put to death or subjected to torture by another; one who suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment,” reads the OED definition of victim. Shooting someone with a semiautomatic rifle seems pretty “cruel or oppressive,” and arguably “cruel or oppressive” systems put a rifle in Kyle Rittenhouse’s hands and allowed him to walk unmolested through the streets of Kenosha. But amid the OED’s definition — in contrast to the Merriam-Webster definition — a plausible case for self-defense could allow the judge to leave the question open. Which he did.

Did Judge Schroeder cherry-pick which dictionary says what he wants to say? Might the jury have convicted Kyle Rittenhouse if the judge read Merriam-Webster?

The problem is that courts take a different approach to definitions than the rest of us do.

Lawyers and judges typically lean on precedent case law for definitions of words. This is part of what makes legal writing so confusing and awful — it continually references past cases to make present arguments. Once a court makes a decision, that precedent holds. Even if language evolves, precedent doesn’t necessarily keep up.

Some judges will follow dictionaries to the point of paralysis. Earlier this year, in one of the first decisions she wrote for the Supreme Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett spent multiple dizzying pages and consulted at least three dictionaries on the definition of the word so. Even the hardiest grammar fans have their limits.

The law prides itself on having historical, repeatedly re-referenced definitions of words. But when the law and the public can’t agree on a word’s definition, we’ve got problems. To the casual observer, Rosenbaum and Huber look like victims — the word would apply even if Rittenhouse killed them in self-defense. But not to the court.

Justice, like journalism, can never be as blind as its proponents claim. Small and large grammatical and language decisions will frequently reveal individuals’ biases, which can set someone like Kyle Rittenhouse free. That’s why we must call out those biases, and correct them when we can.

If we pretend that the law or language is truly impartial, we only perpetuate the injustices baked into both systems. Talk about loaded.

The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and appositive commas to