Are We to Live With Useless Periods Forever?

One of the skills that legal researchers and authors quickly have to master does not have anything to do with substantive law, but with how to refer to legal materials. This is true in many other areas of specialized knowledge, but citation standards in the legal realm seem to be particularly cluttered with minute details and exceptions, especially in Canada and the United States. Some of us eventually become quite skilled at knowing how to use square brackets, abbreviations and acronyms of legal authorities. The rest of us rely on proofreaders to make sure that every rule in the book has been complied with.

Last Summer, the 7th edition of the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (the “McGill Guide”) introduced this “General Rule” at p. E-3:

“In citations, omit periods when using an abbreviation or acronym, unless the Guide explains otherwise.”

The change entailed by this low key sentence has a very significant impact. Indeed, each and every example in the Guide is now free of the useless periods we have come to get used to. What a nice and overdue clean-up!

For those of us who developed the Neutral Citation Standard for Case Law, this orientation change of the McGill Guide felt like a modernization of the legal citation apparatus in Canada. It meant that from now on, the legal style would be aligned with the rest of our world, in which useless periods are not to be seen in acronyms anymore. Who types N.A.T.O., C.B.C. or N.H.L. when referring to these organizations? Nobody has the time to enforce a standard that is not useful. However, in the legal world we still type D.L.R., S.C.R., R.S.O., etc.

Major legal citation guides in the UK (OSCOLA, s. 1.3.1) and Australia (AGLC, s. 1.6.1) clearly forbid the use of “full stops” in abbreviations and initials found in citations. If you look in a law textbook published in these two countries you will not encounter many periods in citations, even when the topic is Canadian corporate law.

Here in Canada, serious people can seriously teach legal research without embellishing everything with useless periods. If you pay a visit to the Research Manual prepared by the staff of the Queen’s University Lederman Law Library, you will see for yourself that law students there learn to cite legal materials without periods. Do you think that these students at Queen’s will be disadvantaged for being entirely clueless about how people were using punctuation in the last century?

The undersigned called for this change many years ago, along with others, including here on Slaw. When the new edition of the McGill Guide was released, there were some discussion about the omission of periods, but now we fear that there could be a sense that the legal community is not ready yet.

Those of us who are ready for the jump – or more exactly who have been waiting for years for this particular jump – must seize every opportunity to speak out and clearly endorse a long overdue change on the path to the improvement of legal citation style in Canada.

These days, in committee rooms, the people responsible for the preparation of this year’s law reports are thinking about what to do. For them, the choice is not clear yet. On the one hand, they can stick to tradition; nobody was ever fired for that. Tradition is good. On the other hand, they can modernize their citation style, but they are not even sure how this more risky tack will be received by their users and readers. This is why we are using this column as a podium to ask you to stand up and to encourage those decision-makers of the publishing industry to dare change timeless but useless practices.

We have an opportunity here. If we miss it, in five years’ time, lawyers and law librarians will tell each other that dropping the periods is impossible in Canada. They will say that this has been tried, but it has not worked, for the legal community loves periods. Everybody will continue to waste their time.

By Daniel Poulin and Frédéric Pelletier, Lexum


  1. Hear, hear!

    Next stop: unreserved adoption of ISO-8601 date formats like YYYY-MM-DD to replace ambiguous formats like MM/DD/YYYY and DD/MM/YYY.

    After that: sensible paper sizes like A4.

    Accepting gracefully such improvements to familiar—but parochial, obsolete and cumbersome—notations and standards will help us reach the 21st Century.

  2. Legal publishers can very easily move this matter forward by amending the reference to the manner in which a case is to be cited that appears at the beginning of every law report volume and part.

    The Ontario Reports would be a good place to start. For example, in the Ontario Reports it could state in the prelims that:

    “This publication may be cited either as OR or as O.R.”

    A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Confucius

  3. My comment is not in response to Daniel and Frédéric’s post (which has my wholehearted approval) but for David Singer’s comment. David — A4 is not a sensible paper size! Our standard 8 1/2″ x 11″ letter size is perfectly sensible! If you take an average-sized sheep, clean and tan its hide (to create vellum aka parchment), fold it into quarters and cut and square the edges, the average size of the result is 8 1/2″ x 11″. That’s the original on which our standard is based. What could be more sensible than that?

  4. I’m just puzzled that this is a priority for LexUM. Even if everyone stopped using periods in abbreviations tomorrow, that wouldn’t change history. People will still encounter both forms (with and without periods), unless we start misrepresenting the contents of older documents. We’re not all e.e. cummings, or even Ke$ha, but punctuation matters. Even where it’s not "to the prejudice of the honour or reputation of the author," we should be reticent about making modifications to the works of others.

    This is where editorial markup comes in handy. For example, something new and interesting in HTML5 is the "abbr" tag, defined in section 4.6.9 of the draft HTML5 specification. It can be used, quite unobtrusively, to let readers know that "Gr." refers to <abbr title="Green’s New Jersey Law Reports ">Gr.</abbr>, not <abbr title="Grant’s Upper Canada Chancery Reports">Gr.</abbr>, in a particular document. Having documents do that would actually be useful.

    The only partly serious rationale that I’ve ever seen for removing periods from abbreviations is that extra periods require extra storage space. But let’s have a close look at LexUM’s own coding (in two distinct versions, no less) of a brand new Supreme Court of Canada decision: Smith v. Alliance Pipeline Ltd., 2011 SCC 7 (LexUM)(CanLII). Some use is made of the class attribute for styling in these documents, but it’s just ridiculous how many elements have individual style attributes. What a waste of space! If LexUM were really serious about reducing document sizes, this should be a much higher priority than eliminating periods from abbreviations.

    In terms of other useful improvements that could be made, check these two LexUM documents out on I’ve tried to make it convenient:
    • LexUM version of 2011 SCC 7 in validator
    • CanLII version of 2011 SCC 7 in validator

    The first document purports to be xhtml 1.0 strict, and the second xhtml 1.0 transitional, but neither is remotely close to being valid. These documents fail to be valid xml in the most basic ways, which means these documents just won’t play nicely with xml processors. Fixing that should be a much, much higher priority than removing periods from abbreviations.

    I’m so grateful to LexUM for the wonderful things they have done over the years. I just don’t see why periods in abbreviations should annoy them so much, considering all the much more important work still to be done in improving legal documentation.

  5. Regarding the quality of HTML, in our conversion environment, we choose to stay as closely to the source format as possible. There is a simple reason for that. For CanLII alone, Lexum publishes 150,000 cases per year coming from some 170 courts and tribunals. In other words, 700 cases per day go live on CanLII mostly within 12 hours from reception. To this we can add weekly updates of 28 statutory databases. In such context, efficiency is of utmost importance.

    If one has a team of dozens of editors and a couple of documents to publish, it may make sense to massage the documents to the point of exquisiteness. This is not the kind of resources and ambition that we have. All we want is to publish many documents quite fast with an HTML result which is nearly identical to the source document produced by the court.

  6. Marc-André Morissette

    Debating periods in legal citations may seem trivial and in the grand scheme of things, it probably is. However, Lexum, on behalf of CanLII, spends a lot of time dealing with citations: first, to recognize and hyperlink them in text and second to display them in the right order and with the proper form in navigation and search pages as well as at the top of content pages. We therefore have developed strong opinions about what should be done to make them more legible. We feel that less punctuation would certainly help.

    You point about the is certainly interesting.

    CanLII publishes around 6000 pages worth of decisions every day. They appear as they were sent by the courts so when it comes to HTML, our highest priority is for the layout to be faithful to the original content. Unfortunately, Microsoft Word files do not lend themselves easily to HTML conversion. We do it by using Microsoft Office’s “Save as HTML” feature and apply a series of homegrown filters to correct issues with symbolic fonts, incorrect field names, and various longstanding Office bugs.

    A side effect of this process is that our files, like the HTML produced by Word, are horribly bloated. We used to try to compress them in some ways but this became really difficult to do without creating more layout issues and few seemed to mind that our document were a bit portly and not very HTML compliant as long as they “looked okay”.

    That being said, mobile devices have brought back document size into focus so we are thinking about the issue.

    Marc-André Morissette
    Director of Technology, Lexum

  7. Marc-André Morissette

    Oups… I meant to write “Your point about the >abbr< tag is certainly interesting.”

  8. On the larger point in the discussion, about the code behind the CanLII case reports, I’m sympathetic to CanLII. Who in his right mind would like to be given a collection of MS Word files for urgent (or even just timely) posting on the web? But this is clearly done faute de mieux — and I think it’s time the relevant parties took a hard look at the mieux.

    One solution would be a better conversion algorithm for CanLII to apply, but figuring out the best way to clean up someone’s mess isn’t ideal. Better still would be the adoption of a standard format for Canadian judgments, a format that would enable them to be quickly and easily published on the web.

    I realize that this sounds a Herculean task, but it’s the only thing that makes ultimate sense. Standardization might even be seen as a blessing by many courts. At any rate, a start might be made with the Supreme Court. As John Davis suggests in mentioning the >abbr< tag, opinions need to be structured at the level of code. This is not at all beyond the powers of IT folks at the moment; and word processors can be customized, if need be, to enable machine readable judgments to be crafted by judges or their assistants with no more fuss than they now encounter using Word. It's simply nuts to go on letting Microsoft fill our judgments with junk and burden our access to law.

  9. The Ontario government changed its paper to A4 for several years about the time when Canada allegedly went metric, by way of setting a good example, presumably. That meant unusual (for North America) copiers and printers and envelopes, and problems copying government documents outside government and non-government documents within government.

    This unfortunate leading/bleeding-edge strategy lasted until the late 1980s. It is a useful lesson on how hard it is to change custom, however principled the change may be.

    I’m not sure who the sheep were in this case study.

    Periods may be easier to eliminate

  10. Like many areas of human endeavour, printing and copying hardware and software have come a long way since the 1980s. Laptop computers didn’t work so well back then, either.

    John, you may be heartened to learn that (as far as I know, and I do use A4 paper), without exception, every printer and copier I have encountered in the past 20 years in Canada, working in the private and public sectors, had the capacity to accept and recognize A4 paper as readily as LTR paper. That includes all equipment I have seen in that period from Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, Lexmark, and Xerox, including the big behemoths in your local print shop.

    This may be in part because most such devices are most commonly made in parts of the world that use A4… a fact that itself should be no surprise because that’s most of the world.

    Tolerance of long-term deficiencies and inefficiencies because of short-term inconvenience is all too common.

  11. I guess that when the number of comments reach the two-digits, it becomes proper for a post’s author to come back in the discussion. I must admit that I have not always followed that rule of thumb on SLAW.

    The original post a page long has two authors. Pundits will say that this fact alone tells a lot about the productivity at Lexum…– especially at direction level. More seriously, let’s get to the point.
    It is a safe guess to say that John N. Davis never seriously believed that Lexum’s plan to minimize the waste of bandwidth in Canada, especially in the context of the recent CRTC decision, was to eliminate the useless punctuations in legal literature. I’m sure that he knows much better, but happily this led to point out shortcomings in the documents we publish. I don’t have any problems with that. All this is really SLAW’s material. Here, I mainly want to revisit the initial issue, the punctuation in acronyms.
    – The immediateness of the issue comes from the fact that the leading Citation Guide invited us all to clean that part of our citation practices
    – Then, as we ‘speak’, some people in our community are facing a decision: tradition or change. Personally, I vote for change!
    Frederic and I choose to bring up this punctuation issue once more on SLAW because we feel that there was an opportunity here. We think that all of us who share an interest in developing an efficient legal information system can say this very costly and useless practice must come to an end, and now is the time to do it.
    This will not make converted documents better (I love this subject and I will come back on SLAW to speak my mind about this soon). This will not save Louis’ sheeps (don’t worry Louis, we got your point 10/10). What is at stake is something else, it is about saving hours and hours of useless works for thousands of people. Just that.

  12. The rationale for removing periods in citations stem from the principle that standards should be there to help us.

    The value of a citation standard should be judged upon its ability to communicate accurate information in the least intrusive manner, both for the author and reader.

    Before the electronic era, editorial standards were enforced by print publishers, not by authors, readers and users. Published authors relied on print publishers to correct their citations so they can focus on the substance of their work. Legal researchers used materials that were carefully proofread. However complex the editorial standards may have been, they were always consistently enforced.

    With new information technologies, most of us have to enforce those standards ourselves. We do not always have citation proofreading assistance when writing legal texts. Even official sources of legal materials do not use periods consistently.

    Electronic research tools require us to type keywords or citations in search templates, some of which will not forgive a missing period in an acronym. Of course these research tools should be designed to handle both forms since periods will always remain present in older documents, as John Points out.

    That being said, what is the rationale for continuing to ask the legal community to type periods in citations?

  13. Gary P. Rodrigues

    Perhaps the time has come for CANLII and Lexum to simply bite the bullet and drop the periods in their databases.

    The case has been well made by Daniel, Frederic and many others, and the decision to do so has been validated by the McGill Guide.

    What are you waiting for? Get on with it.

  14. I like the look of “D.L.R.” better than “DLR”. The campaign to eliminate periods (as with the campaign to eliminate two spaces at the end of a sentence) seem to me to be wholly bizarre projects and quite unworthy of as much time and bytes as they have consumed. I do not see the need for uniformity, provided that every citation is clear; if you want to use DLR, go ahead, but let me use D.L.R.

    I reject the direction that the McGill guide seeks to impose on us and I shall continue to use periods (and accept the inconsistences that go with that) for as long as I refer to cases. I’d much rather that CanLII would make sure that the names (or styles of cause) of the reasons that it publishes were consistent than that it worries about the consistency of citations.

  15. Would Angela impose her tastes on Can.L.I.I.?

  16. If you want to drop periods from an abbreviations D.L.R. to DLR, fine. I’ll disagree with you on the aesthetics of it (I agree with Angela it looks better) but I won’t belabor that point. BUT periods in citations are not useless as you allege. When shortening a person’s name DA Poulin looks like you are a district attorney not that your initials are D.A. (I don’t know what your middle initial is, just creating an example). When citing legislation Income Tax Act, RSC 1985, c 1 (5th Supp) s 18(1), not having a period after the “c” and “s” indicating chapter and section leads to confusion because the “c” and “s” are hanging on their own and people do not understand the connection between the letter and the number. Having a period after Supp. indicates that it is an abbreviation of Supplement, I’m not sure what “Supp” means. I am telling you this from my experience dealing with law students, faculty, lawyers and judges and the 7th ed, not simply opinion. The function of the period in language carries over into citation and you cannot do away with the functioning of the language because it is inconvenient. Not to mention the several hundred years of citation already taken place; the key point being that the use of the period in legal citation is an established CONVENTION not simply a tradition as you allege.

  17. I agree with Angela and Mark. Mark’s examples show that the periods are not useless, and that eliminating them would simply require us to learn and use a new set of conventions in place of the existing ones, which work well enough and which I believe most of us do not particularly mind. I am not sure what the point of engaging in such an exercise would be.

  18. What is the rationale for typing periods in citations?

    As Mark rightly points out, it’s convention. Why do I write “thought” not “thot”? Why do I write “labour” not “labor”? Just because that’s what my tribe does.

    In my previous comment, I didn’t say enough about Ke$ha. She’s a talented young performer with a number of worthy causes: the responsible use of alcohol, as in "TiK ToK" ("Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack."); drug rehabilitation, as in "Your Love Is My Drug" ("My sneeze is gonna be affected if I keep it up like a lovesick crackhead."); freedom of expression, as in "Take It Off" ("There’s a place downtown where the freaks all come around; it’s a hole in the wall; it’s a dirty free for all.").

    In the title of her latest song, "We R Who We R", Ke$ha makes her boldest statement to date on the subject of spelling reform. This could just be the rallying cry that the orthographically challenged twelve-year-olds of the world have been waiting for, showing them that it is possible in adulthood to cast off the shackles that our oppressively conventional system of education is trying to impose upon them.

    Seriously, the Editorial Board of the McGill Law Journal should be trying to codify existing Canadian legal publishing conventions, not trying to legislate utterly pointless new ones. (OK, that wasn’t an entirely serious comment.)

    And is Gary really suggesting that LexUM should strip all the periods out of the Supreme Court Reports?

    I said before that I’m so grateful to LexUM for the wonderful things they are doing within a meagre budget. As Simon pointed out, the problems in LexUM’s html shouldn’t really be LexUM’s problem at all. The root problem is the unreflective use of word processing software by the courts. One question I do have for LexUM, though, is this: Now that the native format for most word processing output is Office Open XML or OpenDocument, why are you still using Microsoft’s save-to-html? Why not work with the xml?

    One of the truly great things that LexUM is doing is to give us pdf, docx and wpd versions of Supreme Court of Canada cases. (Here are LexUM’s Isaac v. Davey, [1977] 2 S.C.R. 897, and Kerr v. Baranow, 2011 SCC 10, for example.) This gives us access (give or take just a wee little bit, I suppose) to the document as it left the court, whether as a word-processing file or on printed pages. I wish CanLII, generally, would give us access to the documents as they come from the courts, and not to just CanLII’s html editions. We don’t often need to do textual criticism where Canadian court cases are concerned, but it would be nice to have the tools available when needed.

  19. Conventions change. The McGill Guide’s removal of redundant full stops from citation is a signal that the winds of change have reached that particular convention.

    One good reason for change is improvement. Amongst the aspirational virtues of legal citations is brevity. Removing redundant characters improves brevity without sacrificing other virtues (notably clarity). Such a change is therefore a net benefit and will reasonably be welcomed by those who use such citations.

    One concern might be practicality: can such a change be adopted without causing the sky to fall? As it turns out, there is good evidence on this front. Other jurisdictions have previously adopted similar simplifications of such conventions, e.g., Australia, NZ, and the UK. None of those jurisdictions has suffered a plague of “citation failure”, and neither will Canada.

  20. There is a reason why clients make lawyer jokes. This is that reason.

  21. There is a reason why clients make lawyer jokes. This is that reason.

    (Or, more correctly: R.O.F.L.)

  22. There is a reason why clients make lawyer jokes. This is that reason.

    Nah. This isn’t lawyer stuff: it’s pure geek material. Most lawyers aren’t geeks, alas.

  23. Spelling sometimes tells one us something about the meaning and history of a word. If that matters, then spelling matters.

  24. Nah. This isn’t lawyer stuff: it’s pure geek material. Most lawyers aren’t geeks, alas.

    Agreed. Although I might quibble that this doesn’t fall squarely into the realm of geek-dom, but more into the realm of those amongst us who are especially rules-oriented and — admittedly — a little persnickety (which is something I personally wear as a badge of honour). Maybe law attracts a disproportionate number of us, but I suspect that in every profession there are folks who relish the strictness of the rules of punctuation and grammar, and who rise up to the challenge of getting every period in its place. We are the kind who actually enjoy reading articles on the proper use of semi-colons (which I believe was the subject of another SLAW article recently).

    So even admitting that there may be no actual, valuable information is lost in a decision to delete periods, there will always be those of us who prefer to keep them in.

    Personally, I have stopped short of keeping the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation and the Chicago Manual of Style on my night-table. (And yes, it kills me not to have provided the full citation just now, in my reference to those publications. I’m trying to chill out a bit). ;-)

  25. I really am suggesting that Lexum prospectively (and retrospectively) move the debate forward by eliminating the periods in case citations in their case law databases. As with the Canadian flag debate of years past, the matter will quickly resolve itself as periods are dropped generally by other legal publishers and by the legal profession.

    The decision to use the period in the first instance was an arbitrary one, made by commercial legal publishers seeking to brand their key products in the legal marketplace. Research guides asserting the need to cite documents according to the dictates of the publishers, were written to reinforce the consistent use of the brand. (The interesting thing about the McGill Guide is that it is the first independent guide to be written and published in Canada.)

    It is a fact that the use of the period in a case citation is not natural. The evidence for this is the need for law students to be trained in its correct use, and by the seemingly endless errors by authors and by judges in its use that legal publishers spend time and money to correct. When referring to a case in a particular law report, no one ever says D period L period R period. Why should it be written other than as it is spoken?

    The key to the acceptance of the change is consistency. When deleting periods in case citations, it must be done consistently throughout a particular document, whether it be the judgment of a court, or a learned treatise authored by an academic, so as to not distract the reader from the substance of what is being read. If academics could only see their work entirely recast without periods, I believe that they would change their mind, or at least be more forgiving.

    This debate will continue until someone acts. Those who have mastered the period are content to have it continue and will seemingly forever raise interesting and passionate arguments as to why it should do so. It reminds me of the debate over the Red Ensign and the Union Jack. When it was all over, more or less everyone was happy with the result.

    The debate over the use of the period in case citations will be quickly forgotten and we will look back in disbelief at the passion it aroused.

  26. As someone who has had to type out many, many case citations–and correct others–I would be in favour of dropping the periods. I bet many legal assistants would echo this sentiment.

  27. Good news from CanLII today: “Today, we are introducing a change in the way posted documents are referred to on CanLII; periods found in citations will gradually fade away. […]”


  28. The above appears only to apply to CanLII-authored text:

    The citations found within legislative texts and court or tribunal decisions will remain unaffected by this change but as some issuing organizations already adopted this trend, we believe that others will follow suit.