Most definition clauses do (and should) start with the words “subject to the context” and these words are important when applying a definition.

The supreme court of appeal said that definitions in an enactment (in this case a by-law) should not be slavishly applied.  Where the context requires it, the ordinary meaning of a word must give way.

Definition clauses should start with the words “subject to the context”

For example, the definition in the by-law of a “sign” is “any object, product, replica, advertising structure, mural, device or board which is used to publicly display a sign or which is in itself a sign; and includes a poster and a billboard.”  The words “which is in itself a sign” does not result in incurable vagueness.  In order to avoid absurdity, all that has to be done is to apply the normal meaning or the dictionary definition of the word “sign” when it appears in the body of the definition.

An interpretation clause declares what may be understood within a term where the circumstances require it.  But to adhere to a definition regardless of subject-matter and context might result in injustice.

An interpretation clause has its uses but also has its dangers.