Rule of noscitur a socii

This article is written by Aparna Venkataraman.


Every provision of the statute as well as every word or phrase must be generally seen through the lens of its context of its applicability, and not in isolation. Every part of the provision has to be ascribed a certain meaning as well as effect in that context in which it is made. In this background, to give effect to the elementary rule, the judiciary has developed the rule of noscitur a socii. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, noscitur a socii refers to “the meaning of an unclear or ambiguous word (as in a statute or contract) should be determined by considering the words with which it is associated in the context.”[1]

Every word has a place in every sentence, which means that every word has two understandings with it – one, denotation, and two, connotation. Denotation refers to the actual meaning of the word, and connotation is the meaning of that word according to the placement of the word in that particular sentence. Both these understandings are used in order to apply the rule of noscitur a socii for the purposes of interpretation. The rule of noscitur a socii is considered to be a subsidiary rule of interpretation. The term has Latin origins, with noscitur meaning knowing, a meaning with, and socii meaning association. Simply put, it refers to ‘knowing with association.’ This phrase is also part of a longer Latin maxim “noscitur ex socio qui non cogiiositur ex se” which is to be understood as “he who cannot be known from himself may be known from his associates.”

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Applicability of the rule

The applicability of this rule of interpretation arises when a word or phrase in question cannot be interpreted in isolation and requires the words that surround it to also be understood in order to better grasp the concept. Another legal maxim to substantiate the same is “qua non valeant singular juna juvant” which stands for “words which are ineffective when taken singly operate when taken conjointly”.

Scope of the rule

The scope of this rule of interpretation is limited, for it can only be applied in the circumstances where the law was either not clear or it was ambiguous. Otherwise, when there are no apparent problems with interpretation, the rule cannot be used. It has also been made clear that the rule cannot be used nefariously to make any of the associated words redundant[2]. The rule of noscitur a sociis cannot be used in cases where the intention of the legislature or Parliament as the case maybe, reflects its deliberate usage of words which would widen the scope.

Lord Macmillan had defined this rule of interpretation of statutes as “the meaning of a word is to be judged by the company it keeps.” The philosophy of the said rule has been stated in “Words and Phrases” as ascertainment of the understanding of any unclear word through getting a grasp of the nearby words associated with it.[3]

The next chapter explains the difference between the two doctrines of noscitur a socii and ejusdem generis.

Issues to be dealt with

  1. What is the difference between the rule of noscitur a sociis and that of ejusdem generis in the Indian context?
  2. How has the Indian judiciary used the rule of noscitur a sociis?

Rule of noscitur a socii and rule of ejusdem generis

The rule of noscitur a socii has an offshoot rule referred to as the rule of ejusdem generis. It is considered that the rule of noscitur a socii is broader in understanding as compared to the rule of ejusdem generis.

To understand the difference between the two doctrines, the rule of ejusdem generis has to be understood. In the case of Kavalappara Kottarathil Kochuni v. State of Madras,[4] the applicability of this rule has been stated. Here, it was said that the rule is only to be applied when there are general words that follow other words, where these other words belong to a particular category all those words are similar. It has also been held in this case that the rule “… is not an inviolable rule of law, but is only permissible inference in the absence of an indication to the contrary.”[5]

This case law has explained the applicability of the canon of ejusdem generis well. According to it, it applies in the circumstances where there is already a list or genus present, and not otherwise. An example for the same would be that of the placement of a tomato in a grocery list, for example. If the list reads, “tomato, potato, onion and garlic,” it is an indication of tomato being treated as a vegetable; but when the same tomato is read along with “papaya, apples, bananas, and melon,” it makes it clear that it is to be taken as a fruit. The rule of noscitur a socii applies in cases where there is an ambiguity in the understanding of any word and hence has to be understood in the context of the associated words. The rule of ejusdem generis however is applicable in similar context, but only when that context consists of a category or class of items. Another point of differentiation between the two rules is the fact that the rule of ejusdem generis is applicable only when certain conditions are fulfilled, thereby restricting the scope of the rule even further. These conditions are –

“(1) the statute contains an enumeration of specific words,

(2) the subjects of enumeration constitute a category,

(3) that class or category is not exhausted by the enumeration,

(4) the general terms follow the enumeration, and

(5) there is no indication of a different legislative intent.”[6]

All these conditions make it clear that the mention of a singular class does not imply or amount to a category[7], and the fact that if the item in question can be a part of two different classes of items, the rule does not apply[8].

Application of the rule of noscitur a socii in the Indian judiciary

There have been various cases in the courts where the rule of noscitur a socii has been used. In some circumstances, although the rule has been made applicable, it has not gone by the name of noscitur a socii. This chapter discusses some of these landmark cases in no particular order.

  • One of the pivotal cases that had discussed this rule in detail is that of State of Bombay v. Hospital Mazdoor Sabha[9], way back in 1960 in the judgement authored by Justice Gajendragadkar. Although the application of the rule had been rejected in the case by the SC, the scope of the rule had been analysed. The judgement stated that the rule of noscitur a socii is a mere rule of construction. It cannot be used where the legislative intent is clear, that is, the legislature has deliberately used words of an open nature and where this usage does not cause any ambiguity. The judgement also defined the scope of this rule, that it can be used in circumstances where the legislative intent is unclear because it is relating broad words with words of narrow meaning.[10]
  • The case had also referred to the English case of The Corporation of Glasgow v. Glasgow Tramway and Omnibus Co. Ltd[11], where the Earl of Halsbury, L.C. had said: “the words ‘free from all expenses whatever in connection with the said tramways’ appear to me to be so wide in their application that I should have thought it impossible to qualify or cut them down by their being associated with other words on the principle of their being ejusdem generis with the previous words enumerated.”[12]
  • In the case of State of Assam v. Ranga Muhammad,[13] the court applied the rule for the question of whether the HC had to be consulted by the Governor in the transfer of a sitting Judge, and held that upon applying the rule of noscitur a socii in the instant case, the word “posting” in the context of district judges was associated with the other words of “appointments” as well as “promotions.” But these two words could not be interpreted to include “transfer” as well, and hence the Governor had to consult the HC in this circumstance.
  • Later, in the case of State of Karnataka v. UOI,[14] clarification was sought for in respect of Art.194 of the Constitution of India. The rule of noscitur a socii was applied to the question – whether the Art. imposed powers on the legislature, or on the members of the legislature. To answer this question, the court applied this principle to say that the word in question (“powers”), got not only its meaning, but also its context from the words that had been used in relation to it.[15]
  • In the case of Vania Silk Mills Pvt. Ltd. v. Commissioner of IT, Ahmedabad,[16] the understanding of S2(47) of the Income Tax Act 1961 was done with the help of the rule of noscitur a socii. With the usage of this rule, the SC interpreted that the term “transfer” and said that because the legislature had provided for examples such as sale and exchange, the phrase “extinguishment of any rights therein” had to be interpreted as an extinguishment of rights because of a transfer only, and that it cannot be said to refer to termination of any other right either related to or unrelated to a transfer.[17]
  • In another case, the SC held that the meaning of the word “consumables” in S5B of the Andhra Pradesh Goods and Services Act 1957 had to be read along with the words “raw materials,” “component part,” “sub-assembly part,” as well as “intermediate part”. S5B allowed for the tax to be imposed on raw material and the other words as given above. Reading the word “consumables” in the context of these words, implies that the good used must be as a means to obtain the final end product. But the natural gas that had been used by the assessee was not used in the capacity of a consumable, and hence the Court held that the concessional rate as given in S5B could not be availed by the assessee.[18]
  • The entries in the Schedule(s) of the Central Sales Tax Act of 1956 and that of the Central Excise Act of 1944 had been interpreted using the rule of noscitur a socii by the SC in the case of Pardeep Agarbatti, Ludhiana v. State of Punjab and Ors.[19] Here, it was said that in the event of articles being grouped together in the Schedules, they were to be interpreted together, for each item in the grouped entry was associated with the other and also drew colour from the other words that had been used there too. It went on to add that had there been no association to be interpreted, then the legislature would not have grouped those items together too.[20]
  • The rule was used in another SC case, where the SC had interpreted that the words “mineral,” “mineral oil,” and “ores” were all associated words and hence were to be understood together[21]. The assessee claimed deductions under S. 80HHC(2)(b)(ii) of the Income Tax 1961 for export turnover of granite, citing that the section exempted mineral oil and ores from the deductions, but not the granite. The SC however, rejected this interpretation and held that because all mineral, mineral oil and ores were extracted from earth, including that of granite, the deductions did not apply to granite as well.
  • One of the Rules of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (Rule 2A) was also interpreted using the rule of noscitur a socii in the case of Samee Khan v. Bindu Khan.[22] The Hon’ble Apex Court, after using the said rule concluded by saying: “Hence the words “and may also” in Rule 2-A cannot be interpreted the context as denoting a step which is permissible only as additional to attachment of property of the opposite party.”[23]
  • The case of Oswal Agro Mills Ltd. v. Collector, Central Excise[24] the SC has interpreted the case using this rule succinctly as It is no doubt true that the doctrine of noscitur a socii, meaning thereby, that it is a legitimate rule of construction to construe words in an Act of Parliament with reference to words found in immediate connection with them i.e. when two or more words which are susceptible of analogous meaning are clubbed together, they are understood to be used in their cognate sense. They take, as it were, their colour from each other, the meaning of the more general is restricted to a sense analogous to a less general.”[25]
  • In another case, the conviction of the appellant under S. 2(4) of the Bombay Shops and Establishments Act of 1948 was held to be illegal[26]. This interpretation was also brought using the rule of noscitur a socii. It was held that the words “commercial establishment” and “profession” were considered with the words “trade” and “business” and hence the scope of the former words must be restricted to that of the latter. The court later went on to prove that the profession of the appellant did not fall under the purview of the Act and hence his conviction was liable to be set aside.
  • The meaning of the term “any sale held without leave of the court” was interpreted in the association of the words “any attachment, distress, or execution put in force” in the case of MK Jagannath v. Govt. of Madras.[27] This interpretation meant that only the sale of properties that were done with the intervention of the court were considered to be within the scope of this section. Any other sale, such as a sale done to a creditor, as was the facts of the case, was held to be outside the purview of this section because of the fact that there was no intervention of the Court.


This project has referred to various cases of the SC, where the principle of noscitur a socii has been used in the various circumstances as were present. In order to present a holistic picture, the author has also attempted to present the offshoot rule of ejusdem generis, as well as the differences between the two. Although the judiciary has taken the pains to use the appropriate canon of interpretation, an element of caution has to be ever present while using either of two rules, so as to avoid any discrepancies. This is to be noted because there have been instances of the wrong rule being used, as in the case of Rajasthan State Electricity Board v. Mohanlal and Ors.[28], where the rule of ejusdem generis had been applied regarding the interpretation of the phrase “other authorities” in Art. 12 of the Constitution of India.

The SC had referred to the various decisions given by the HCs and had stated that “In our opinion, the High Court’s fell into an error in applying the principle of ejusdem generis when interpreting the expression “other authorities” in Art. 12 of the Constitution, as they overlooked the basic principle of interpretation that, to invoke the application of ejusdem generis rule, there must be a distinct genus or category running through the bodies already named.”[29] In order to avoid such instances, the Courts have to be more cautious in using the various rules of interpretation, particularly the rules of noscitur a socii and the rule of ejusdem generis.



  • “Words and Phrases” (Vol. XIV, p. 207).
  • GP SINGH, INTERPRETATION OF STATUTES 440-443 (LexisNexis & 2014).


  • Yule Kim, Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends,  CSR Rep. for Con. 1 10 (2008).
  • Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl, Hierarchy and Heterogeneity: How to Read a Statute in a Lower Court, 97 CORNELL L. REV. 433 (2012). 


[1] MERRIAM WEBSTER, NOSCITUR A SOCII, (last visited Nov. 20, 2020).

[2] Shriram Vinyl and Chemical Industries v. Commissioner of Customs, AIR 2001 SC 1283.

[3] “Words and Phrases” (Vol. XIV, p. 207).

[4] Kavalappara Kottarathil Kochuni v. State of Madras, AIR 1960 SC 1080.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Amar Chandra v. Collector of Excise, 1972 AIR 1863.

[7] United Town Electric Co Ltd v. AG for Newfoundland, (1939) 1 ALL ER 423 (PC).

[8] Indramani Pyarelal Gupta (Dr) v. WR Natu, AIR 1963 SC 274.

[9] State of Bombay v. Hospital Mazdoor Sabha, AIR 1960 SC 610.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Corporation of Glasgow v. Glasgow Tramway and Omnibus Co. Ltd., (1898) A.C. 631.

[12] Ibid.

[13] State of Assam v. Ranga Muhammad, AIR 1967 SC 903.

[14] State of Karnataka v. UOI, AIR 1978 SC 68.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Vania Silk Mills Pvt. Ltd. v. Commissioner of IT, Ahmedabad, (1991) 4 SCC 22.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Coastal Chemicals Ltd. v. Commercial Tax Officer, A.P. and Ors., (1999) 8 SCC 465.

[19] Pardeep Agarbatti, Ludhiana v. State of Punjab and Ors., (1997) 107 STC 561 (SC).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Stonecraft Enterprises v. Commissioner of Income Tax, (1999) 3 SCC 343.

[22] Samee Khan v. Bindu Khan, (1998) 7 SCC 59.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Oswal Agro Mills Ltd. v. Collector, Central Excise, (1993) Sup. 3 SCC 716.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Devendra M Surti v. St of Gujarat, AIR 1969 SC 63.

[27] MK Jagannath v. Govt. of Madras, AIR 1955 SC 604.

[28] Rajasthan State Electricity Board v. Mohanlal and Ors., AIR 1967 SC 1857.

[29] Ibid.

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