Lawyer Type (3): Of Squigglies, Pilcrows, and Gaspers

One of the reasons I might like to practice in the United States is that I’d get to use the squiggly in my documents. Otherwise known as the section symbol or mark, § is one of my favourite typographical elements, having an elegance and symmetry that please me in a way that the mere “s.” we Canadians use to denote a section of a statute simply cannot. It is, literally, twice (as good as) our section character, being two esses, one above the other. Feel free to sprinkle your comments in Slaw with this lovely mark: easy to do: simply type in & followed by #167 followed by ; with no spaces, the code that will, like magic, turn into a squiggly.

Not too far down my pick of the glyphs is the pilcrow, if only for the name alone. Its humbler appellation is the paragraph mark or symbol: (code & #182 ; again with no spaces). This we do get to use from time to time in the practice of law here, thankfully. Now lots of folks think that it’s a backwards P, hence standing for paragraph. Not so. It seems that it dates back to medieval manuscripts and perhaps earlier, where a modified C standing for the Latin capitulum denoted a chapter or a significant breaking point. The modification consisted of drawing two vertical lines through the letter, which produced something very like a backwards P.

didot_pilcrow.pngThe typographers Hoefler & Frere-Jones have written a good small piece on the pilcrow and have illustrated it with some graphics showing how that symbol appears in various type faces, one of which, as you see to the right, makes clear the pilcrow’s origins in capitulum. (Click on the image to see more pilcrows in action.)

Though you’ll see a lot of § and ¶ in legal work, it’s unlikely that you’ll come upon a gasper. The exclamation mark — ! — also known in the newspaper trade as a screamer, a startler and a dog’s cock, popular though it is in ordinary life, stays well clear of law because, I’d say, it’s job is to convey emotion or at least strong feeling where it’s feared that words themselves will fail. You might think of it as the first emoticon. And as we all know, law is devoid of strong feeling. The annoying thing, though, is that I’m not able to check out my guess that the bang is banned in law as easily as I might because search engines don’t regard punctuation marks as fit search terms. So if you spot a screamer in a statute or judgment, do let me know. If the exclamation mark appeals to you, have a look at a charming article about it in the Guardian, “The joy of exclamation marks!” by Stuart Jeffries, and don’t neglect the comments on it.


  1. I found a nicely understated reference to exclamation marks in a 1993 BCSC decision. Mr. Justice Thackary was reviewing the plaintiff’s medical records:

    “On March 1 the plaintiff wanted an extra 45 tablets of Darvon alleging that she had lost her prescription down the toilet. Dr. Wong’s reaction to this is evidenced by two exclamation marks.”

  2. Simon:

    Methinks that you have taken Robert Frost’s road not taken (leading to the law), only to look back at the other road that led towards the appealing elegance of manipulating other powerful ideas represented by a few of the thousands of symbols that fall within mathematical notation. Oh the strained cry of the humble lawyer, unable to even claim the use of a simple exclamation mark!

    However, there is a payback (of sorts). Punctuation marks, even odd ones, have been incorporated into the feature sets of word processors fairly easily (as you have noted). Pity the poor mathematician who must deal with thousands of special characters as well as upper and lower cases, myriad types of brackets as well as trying to represent complicated numerators and denominators properly given the unpredictability of formatting even in today’s word processing systems.

    Makes one wish for the simplicity of a pencil and pad!