The principle of Noscitur a Sociis is a rule of construction. It is one of the rules of language used by court to interpret legislation. This means that, the meaning of an unclear word or phrase should be determined by the words immediately surrounding it. In other words, the meaning of a word is to be judged by the company it keeps. The questionable meaning of a doubtful word can be derived from its association with other words. It can be used wherever a statutory provision contains a word or phrase that is capable of bearing more than one meaning.

This rule is explained in Maxwell on the interpretation of statutes in following words – When two or more words susceptible of analogous meaning are coupled together, they are understood to be used in their cognate sense. The words take their colour from and are quantified by each other, the meaning of the general words being restricted to a sense analogous to that of the less general.

Relying on the above, in the case of Commissioner of Income  Tax v. Bharti cellular it was held that term ‘technical servies’ used in section 194J of the Income Tax Act is unclear. The word technical would take colour from the words managerial & consultancy between which it is sandwiched. These terms ‘managerial services’ & ‘consultancy services’ necessarily involve a human intervention . So applying noscitur a sociis the word ‘technical’ would also have to be construed as involving a human element. Thus, interconnection & port access services rendered by the assessee do not involve any human interface & therefore cannot be regarded as technical services u/s 194J of the Income Tax Act.

Coupling of word together shows that they are to be understood in the same sense and where the meaning of particular word is doubtful or obscure or where a particular expression when taken singly is inoperative, its intention is to be ascertained by looking at adjoining words or at expressions occurring at other parts of the same instrument.

If one could pick out a single word or phrase & finding it perfectly clear in itself, refuse to check its apparent meaning, in the light thrown upon it by the context or by other provisions then the principle of noscitur a sociis would be utterly meaningless. This principle requires that a word or phrase or even a whole provision which standing alone has a clear meaning , must be given quite a different meaning when viewed in the light of its context.

The apex court in Pradeep Agarbatti with reference to the Punjab Sales Tax Act held that the word, “perfumery’’ means such articles as used in cosmetics and toilet goods viz, sprays, etc but does not include ‘Dhoop’ and ‘Agarbatti’. This is because in Schedule ‘A’ Entry 16 of Punjab Sales Tax Act reads as “cosmetics, perfumery & toilet goods excluding toothpaste , tooth powder kumkum & soap.”

Delhi Tribunal in the case of, Parsons Brinckerhoff India (P.) Ltd. vs. Asstt. DIT (Int. Tax) applying the rule of Noscitur a Sociis held that, the words ‘model’ and ‘design’ cannot fall under definition of ‘royalty’ under Explanation 2 to section 9 (I) (VI) of the Income Tax Act. They have to take colour from the other words surrounding them, such as, patent, invention, secret formula or process or trade mark, which are all species of intellectual property.

Noscitur a sociis cannot prevail in case where it is clear that the wider words have been deliberately used in order to make the scope of the defined word correspondingly wider. It can also be applied where the meaning of the words of wider meaning import is doubtful; but, where the object of the Legislature in using wider words is clear and free from ambiguity, the rule of construction cannot be applied.

Republished with Amendment

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  1. Divyam jain says:

    The way Noscitur A sociis is explained id very nice. I have read from many sources but never able to understand but here , This Article helped me a lot

  2. vswami says:

    As commonly known, the concepts of flat and apartment (intimately related / connected to the realty sector) have brought into being significant changes in property law. In Maharashtra, the enactment on flats was made earlier (1963); and on apartments, later (1970). Unlike in Karnataka, where the two enactments were brought on the statute book in quick succession (1972 -1973).
    Further, both are, in terms, complementary to each other; in that, none of the two enactments can be implemented or enforced independently and in isolation. This oddity about the legislation has given rise to practical problems; mainly so in the matter of interpretation. For instance, the recent SC case on the dispute centered on ‘common areas’ stands out. It is in such peculiar contexts that the ‘rule’ of “Updating Construction” referred in the previous post assumes relevance and could come to aid.
    For other instances, may look up the court/itat cases reported on this website itself.

  3. vswami says:

    To share own thoughts:
    As repeatedly cautioned by courts themselves, before calling any one or more of such principles /rules for help, first and foremost , the context must be one in which the word (s)/ the language used must be ambiguous and also exists a doubt about the meaning; it must be a profoundly real doubt,-not conjectural or fanciful. Further, they are not rules of law. They are merely aids to construction or interpretation of ‘statutes’; hence not be treated as masters. Need to be ignored or discarded if the facts and circumstances so require. New rules may (or should) be evolved for meeting new or unique situations.
    Anyone who has made some study of this topic – readily made available on a silver platter in the leading text book of N A Palkhivala ( last Edition, pages 12 to 36 ) – could not have failed to realise the overwhelmingly large number of them and the cited case law- that is, the very enormity of the attendant problems / issues arising or raised , because of the ever changing ‘concepts’, and newer and newer innovations coming into being, in modern times, more so, in recent years. If perceptively considered or incisively examined, it s quite likely that many of the old rules, so also the age-old literature, may be realised to have become stale and outdated; so requiring to be discarded.
    In one’s own longstanding conviction, the one aspect which is significantly of the utmost importance hence not to be lost sight is the perennial need for “Updating Construction” – to know why so, may look up the case law cited on this very topic (page 16).
    The foregoing may serve the purpose of a useful backdrop, to anyone with a passionate wish and insightful mind to independently study and try forming an opinion on some of the recent and highly sensitive developments in the income- tax regime – say, to begin with , in re. Vodafone and like cases.
    May be contd.

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April 2021