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Almost everybody says "the statute of limitations has run out" when the literal meaning of that locution is clearly not what is intended: what is meant is that the period specified in the statute has run out in a particular case, while the statute itself remains in force.

The Wikipedia entry on the statute of limitations contains a similar formulation:

When a statute of limitations expires in a criminal case, the courts no longer have jurisdiction.

Clearly the expiration in question is of the period specified by the statute, and not of the statute itself: if the statute itself expired there would be no limitations.

What is the correct way to express the idea that is intended by these formulations?

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    @Edwin Ashworth the quoted wiki entry has an illiterate sentence. a statute of limitations is not a date or duration - it is a law or a regulation. that sets a date or duration. Maybe this illiteracy has become idiomatic from usage.
    – S K
    Commented Apr 6 at 0:18
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    Welcome to SE ELU. As you are a new contributor, let me give me some constructive suggestions, which in my humble opinion will help improve your question. 1. Include the question in the body of the text. You may think if it's in the title it is enough, but it is best to make it absolutely clear. 2. The constituency of this site is people who regard themselves as knowledgable about the English Language and pride themselves on their ability to use it. Portmanteau statements of the type "almost everybody says" tend to annoy some of us. Try "many people" instead. 3 Quotes provide evidence. Google.
    – David
    Commented Apr 6 at 18:19
  • I meant EXACTLY what I wrote. among the dozens of instances I have seen, it was used correctly ONLY ONCE (by a lawyer). Fowler might call the illiterate form 'a sturdy indefensible". @David
    – S K
    Commented Apr 6 at 18:35
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    @SK, your earlier comment that 'maybe this illiteracy has become idiomatic from usage' is ultimately the answer to this question: this is one of those errors that are so widespread that they have ceased to be errors. While you are certainly free to, and perhaps should, use better formulations in your own writing, you are likely to be seen as annoyingly pedantic if you keep correcting others when they say that the statute has run out.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 6 at 19:05
  • And you mentioned humo(u)r! Those who know my posts — and those who are familiar with famous malapropisms and the like — would recognize it for the quotation it is. A Google search would reveal that the credit goes to Samuel Goldwyn. ("Credit" How appropriate!)
    – David
    Commented Apr 6 at 20:59

6 Answers 6

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It's not really improper. It basically means the state has a time limit to bring charges. It's that time limit that technically runs out, but you need the context to talk about in in the first place, hence why most will simply say it "ran out". Since the statute of limitations is a law, the only way it would no longer be enforced is through a repeal.

If you want to be more precise, just be explicit.

Tom embezzled money from his employer, but accountants didn't notice that for years. By then, the time limit in the statute of limitations on the crime had been exceeded, preventing anyone from charging him.

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What they are saying is a contracted form of "the time frame allotted for the prosecution of a particular offence has been exceeded and the offender can no longer be brought to justice." So you could accurately say :

We cannot prosecute Joe for dropping litter 7 months ago because, under the statute of limitations, it has to be done within 6 months. and the time available has run out [expired].

I think this is one of those cases where the phrase used is technically incorrect, but every native speaker knows exactly what is meant.

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    Yes, the Wikipedia article illustrates the abbreviated form: << When the time which is specified in a statute of limitations runs out, a claim might no longer be filed or, if it is filed, it may be subject to dismissal if the defense against that claim is raised that the claim is time-barred as having been filed after the statutory limitations period. When a statute of limitations expires in a criminal case, the courts no longer have jurisdiction.... >> It is metonymy; compare "I'll just boil a kettle," Commented Apr 5 at 17:44
  • @EdwinAshworth, 'boil a kettle' is not exactly analogous to what the question is about: kettles cannot be literally boiled, but statutes can literally expire.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 6 at 19:47
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The statute of limitation is in effect - means the clock is ticking.
The statute of limitation is tolled - means the clock has stopped ticking (probably because you are known to be out of the jurisdiction)
The statute of limitation is expired - means the defense can move to dismiss.

If a felony entails the risk of incarceration, it has a three-year statute of limitations. This means that the prosecution must commence within three years of the offense being committed, according to the law. The statute of limitations is in effect as long as you are in the state of California. The statute of limitations is tolled — or put on hold — if you leave the state and then return. The statute of limitations might be extended by up to 6 years as a result of this.
https://www.chamberslawfirmca.com/california-statute-of-limitations-for-charges-of-drug-possession/

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  • It is not clear how this answers the question. The OP knows that people speak and write this way, but offers an argument as to why that is problematic, and seeks a better way. Your answer does not deal with what the OP finds problematic about this usage. If you believe that nothing about it is really problematic you should say so explicitly and explain why you think that the OP's concerns are misguided.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 6 at 19:55
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What is the correct way to express the idea that is intended by these formulations?

In all locales I am aware of where it is common to say that a / the statute of limitations "has expired" or "has run out", that is idiomatic language, and therefore correct, notwithstanding that the meaning is different from what the words literally say.

Native speakers in such locales are unlikely to misunderstand, and they would probably find it odd for you to instead say something along the lines of:

the statutory time limit for prosecuting anyone for the crime has expired.

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  • I doubt that anybody would find the formulation at the end of this answer odd. The only downside of using it is that it is rather long, and this downside can become quite significant if the concept needs to be invoked a number of times on the same page. The wording the statute of limitations has run out has probably become established, in spite of its imperfections, precisely because it is shorter than any of the more accurate formulations.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 6 at 20:05
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    @jsw29, I would find it odd, for one. Not because the sentence is inherently odd, but because it simply is not the wording that people actually use, anywhere I've ever lived. Commented Apr 7 at 3:48
  • @jsw29 Well, they should find it odd, because the statute of limitations does not prevent prosecution. It is for the defense to use to get the case dismissed. Better precision without better accuracy doesn't help much.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Apr 7 at 15:45
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    @PhilSweet, true, but it is quite common to say that you cannot prosecute/sue someone for something, when what is meant is that you cannot successfully do that because there are obvious grounds for dismissal or indisputable defences. In any event, the formulation at the end of this answer is far more accurate than 'the statute of limitations has run out'.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 7 at 18:47
  • This answer is right. I have translated legal docs. for 35 years and no lawyer ever complained. It is the statute of limitation [in number of years] that has run out or expired. It's completely kosher and not everyone is familiar with legal lingo. What's the limitation on this? Five years, say, for debt collecting. 5 years can be seen as a limitation on the time a company has to collect a debt. If you don't do legal, maybe you simply do not know all this. Semantics in legal language is not always 100% the same as regular language. Yes, time barred is another way to say it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 9 at 15:28
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In the UK there is no Statute of Limitations for criminal cases, which is why almost nobody here would echo the quotation in the question. According to one (British) source I found:

After the time limit has passed… The case is said to be ‘statute barred’.

And, indeed, the term is listed in the Cambridge Dictionary, although all examples given are from Hansard (the proceedings of the House of Commons). It is particularly used in reference to debt in Scotland, which has its own legal system.

Merriam-Webster has an entry for it, suggesting that it is also used the USA:

statute barred: barred by the statute of limitations

So this would appear to be the logically and legally “correct” phrase requested by the OP (and, of course, the one I would use).

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  • There are statutes of limitation for debt and probably for other things as well (not criminal, OK). And the same lingo applies: time-barred or the statute of limitation has run out or expired.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 6 at 19:29
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Almost everybody says "the statute of limitations has run out" when the literal meaning of that locution is clearly not what is intended: what is meant is that the period specified in the statute has run out in a particular case, while the statute itself remains in force.

There is nothing wrong with "the statute of limitations has run out".

People who speak English understand that there have been omissions and are intelligent enough to complete, for themselves, the omitted words, given the context.

"the statute of limitations has run out" = The time limited for prosecution/action as laid down in the Statute of Limitations has expired.

It is also important to understand that Statutes and Acts do not "run out" - that, in itself, should give you the clue.

Omissions are common in English - and other languages. I think it is only reasonable that one makes a little effort to understand things and does not introduce pedantry unnecessarily.

It does not have the same ambiguity as

We did not know that the car had a hole in its petrol tank and it ran out.

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  • the statute of limitation [singular] has run out" ,yes, because those who do law etc. know that the statute of limitations refers to a period of time, implicitly.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 9 at 15:30

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