From Punctuation to Markup

This began as a comment, and then got out of hand. It is a response to Simon Fodden’s post on squigglies, pilcrows, and gaspers and Gary Rodrigues’ post, “The full stop in legal citation – has its time finally come?“.

Looking at a printed page in a law report, I don’t care whether the law report abbreviations have periods or not, as long as the periods are consistently there or not there. The context will almost certainly make it clear, without the periods, whether “A” is the Atlantic Reporter or an indefinite article, and whether “OR” is the the Ontario Reports or a conjunction. Anyone who plans to read widely in law will have to learn to recognize both forms, because editorial practice has varied, and we can’t change history.


A long time ago, in Doe d. Willis v. Martin (1790), 4 Term. Rep. 39, 100 E.R. 882 (K.B.), at 897, Lord Kenyon said:

… [W]e know that no stops are ever inserted in Acts of Parliament or in deeds; but the Courts of Law, in construing them, must read them with such stops as will give effect to the whole; …

We know from ancient inscriptions that the Romans had a similar attitude.

Trajan's Column

Source: Visible Words

Most of the inscriptions used a symbol for word breaks. Not so much on this one, though:

C. Julius Laco

Source: Visible Words

As these examples show, part of the challenge of reading ancient inscriptions is the extensive use of abbreviations. It’s the same when reading legal citations. On a printed page, it usually isn’t hard to recognize that there is an abbreviation to decipher, and we have the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations to help us.

Today, most of us are literate and read silently. The visual, rather than the auditory, is primary for us. We think that the punctuation is part of the text, whereas Lord Kenyon saw it as markup (not that he would have used the term).

In the digital age, with best practice being to separate content and style, we may wish to move the line between punctuation and markup back a little closer to where Lord Kenyon had it. Ideally, people creating web pages would use some kind of markup to indicate that there is an abbreviated citation. The reader could then choose whether to display abbreviations with periods or not, according to taste, or indeed to have all abbreviations resolved automatically using something like the Cardiff index, preferably as part of the process of building links to the reader’s preferred sources of full text for the cited works.


  1. To me the problem is not just reading, it is writing. There is no real interest to write D.L.R. instead of DLR. Both are legible, both convey the information clearly, one is easy to type, the other one is a bit longer.

    To illustrate my point, there are many acronym on this SLAW’s page: RSS, MIT, ABA, BC, UK none of us it fussy enough to start messing with R.S.S. or M.I.T. It does not make sense to me why we would act otherwise for legal acronyms like CCC or SCC.

    I always wanted to simplify legal citations. I think that getting rid of useless punctuation is a step in the good direction.


  2. Gary P. Rodrigues

    If anyone can succeed in eliminating useless punctuation in Canadian legal citation, it is Daniel Poulin, using the resources of CANLII and LEXUM.

  3. Punctuation—at least for me—is part of the text. I get great pleasure from reading a text where, for example, the author carefully uses the “m” dash rather than parentheses or the semi-colon rather than the comma or colon. A text is not just words, it’s the expression of an idea or the telling of a story and that includes the precise statement of the relation of one part of the text to another made by the careful use of punctuation.

    As for abbreviations, why would anyone not have his or her common abbreviations recorded in Autocorrect so that, “dlr“ becomes “D.L.R.” or “DLR”? I prefer to see an abbreviation with periods, but I can’t see why anyone would fuss over the issue.

    And while I’m at it, I can point out that “all caps” is very difficult to read and the increasingly common practice of putting huge chunks of text—usually the warranty or exemption clause—in all caps actually defeats the purpose the drafter had.

    A more serious aspect of punctuation is the failure of many drafters of agreements to “sculpt” the text. By “sculpting” I mean the breakdown (or restructuring) of text to separate it into sections, sub-sections, paragraphs, etc. A Canadian statute is very easy to read when compared with an American one, just as a Canadian drafted agreement is usually much easier to read than an American one; the latter being often in dense paragraphs with many sentences.

  4. I knew I forgot to mention something important. Here’s a link to YouTube and Dan Baird’s I Love You Period.

  5. You didn’t mean the URL to go here did you? ;)