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