The Full Stop in Legal Citation – Has Its Time Finally Come?

Canadian law report citations are riddled with “full stops”, more commonly referred to as “periods”, all of which are completely unnecessary. Needless to say, there are crusaders amongst us who would do away with them altogether, sooner rather than later.

I will admit to having been the unwitting source of a number of the offending citations. In the development of Carswell’s series of topical law reports, an official citation was required for each of them. By tradition, it is the publisher who determines what the citation shall be and how it is to be styled. That task fell to me.

My mentor at the time told me that the way it was done was to check lists of law report citations and develop something similar to, but different from, what had been done before. Unfortunately, I was directed to a list of English and Commonwealth law report citations which are riddled with periods and not to American lists which are largely period free.

Following the English practice, the decision made was to include a period after the abbreviation for every key word in the title of the each law report series. The unfortunate consequence of this decision was thousands upon thousands of unnecessary key strokes in setting type and endless hours of citation checking to ensure that the periods were all in their proper places. What a waste!

Editorial standards serve a purpose

In print, editors review every citation in a manuscript to ensure that all of the elements are present and that every date, letter, bracket, comma or period is in its proper place. While this work appears to be of comparatively little importance to the average reader, it in fact plays a critical role in transforming mere words on a page into an authoritative (or at least “authoritative looking”) statement of the law.

Confidence in the substance of a piece of writing can be undermined by poor presentation. In my early days in legal publishing, I observed manuscripts that superficially appeared to be of inferior quality being transformed by editors into publications of importance when the distractions caused by poor grammar and incomplete references to sources were eliminated.

Jewels of legal thought and analysis are sometimes revealed when the rules of citation established by style guides such as the McGill Guide and the publisher’s own style guide are systematically incorporated into the final version of a document or legal text. This result is not achieved by the addition of periods per se, but rather by the consistent implementation of editorial standards which at the present time include the use of periods.

A brave new world without full stops

Online searching no longer requires the use of periods in a citation to find documents with case references that include periods. While technology makes it possible to ignore the existence or otherwise of a period in a case citation, technology does not eliminate the need for editorial standards in a document or text.

It has been suggested that online documents can let it all hang out and that the editorial standards established for the print world are not relevant in the online world. I don’t think it is that simple. Editorial standards serve the same purpose in the online environment as they do in the print world, i.e they enhance the authority of the document and the credibility of its author.

One way in which change may be achieved is by a shift in the content of the style guides to endorse the elimination of periods in citations, provided that the periods are eliminated from all of the citations in a document or text. Publishers also have the option of stating that a case reported in a particular series of law reports may be cited without periods. In this way, editorial standards would be maintained. It would simply be a different set of standards.

Getting “buy-in” from judges, authors and publishers to implement the change is the next step. This step should be fairly easy given that is much easier to remember not to include periods than it is to remember to get them all in the right place.

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  1. Now what about commas?

    (I say nothing, of course, about exclamation marks… )

  2. Wow, I had never given this much thought before. Do you perchance have before-and-after examples, Gary?

  3. Hmmm . . . how is it a FULL STOP if it appears in a citation?

    Periods used in abbreviations aren’t full stops, are they?

  4. Bruce Welling was there before us, but as usual no half measures. Bruce and his Aussie buddies would also abolish the bracket round, square, angled and kissing. The curse of legal writing classes gone at a stroke.

    I suspect that all this must make the code for legal databases much easier.

  5. I agree with you Gary. Among the members of the Canadian Citation Committee, this topic have surfaced a couple of times since 2006 and we plan to dicuss this further over the next months. Stay tuned.

    I would like to add the following points to the discussion:

    - Acronyms corresponding to names of case law reports or other legal publications seem easy to reform than other abbreviations since they have a clear meaning in the legal context. When you see “37 DLR (4th) 148″, you know what DLR means, you don’t miss the periods. You also know what “QL” means. These are low hanging fruits. More problematic are the periods denoting initials of de-identified persons in case names.

    - Justice Canada has published its regulations with the “SOR” or “SI” acronyms since many years. Other jusrisdictions omit periods or even spaces in their citations (e.g. “RSA 2000 cD‑2″). Legal guides still recommend the insertion of periods in these acronyms. As authors should we use the standard set by the original source – which is sometimes the official one – , or should we follow the editorial standards? I agree that it is crucial that those who set these editorial standards make some progress on the issue.

    - As legal researchers, we are also facing a problem with electronic search. You still find search engines that will require the insertion of dots or other meaningless punctuation to work properly. This is technically easy to resolve; search engines can be made “punctuation insensitive” by default. You should be able to retrieve the same documents from a system by either typing “L.R.C. 1985, c. 1 (5th Supp.)” or “LRC 1985 c 1 (5th Supp)”.

    Of course as you point out, the main problem is not really where we want to go, but how would this be implemented. It would be interesting to see how this change has been achieved in the U.K. and in Australia, which have both abandoned the “Full stop”.