Punctuation – it DOES matter

Credit: theoatmeal.com

The following is an extended passage taken from the wonderfully cranky and pedantic book The King’s English by the wonderfully cranky and pedantic Kingsley Amis. Intended as a highly subjective and opinionated “guide to modern usage”, the passage below is taken from the entry on “Capitals and full stops”. It should be noted that in British parlance, a full stop is what most Canadians would know as a period.

“Once upon a time everything was straightforward and everything was the same, and you wrote of the R.A.F. and the B.B.C. and the U.S.A. under principles that needed no defining, only demonstration. Then bit by bit modernity started arriving and the full stops started disappearing, but at different speeds and with different degrees of completeness. At one stage it looked as if collections of capital initials that could be and often were pronounced as a word, acronyms as there were very often called, consistently lost their full stops, and we wrote NATO and UNO and NASA, and said Nato and Uno and Nasa, and  often-used abbreviations lost their stops too and we go ie and eg and even rsm (in The Times), and it seemed as if we were within reach of consistency, that grammarian’s dream of perfection. But then some of us noticed that to write RAF suggested, often wrongly and perhaps annoyingly, that the writer said Raf, and that nobody said Ira, and that although everybody was writing USA nobody ever said Ooza or Yooza even in fun, and what about people’s initials? Consistency, even as a rough rule of thumb, seemed and still seems as far off as ever.

There is luckily an easy way out of this not very pressing problem. It consists of heeding the fact that nobody cares much or even observes what you write in your own fist – in a personal letter, say – and more importantly as regards matter to be published no personal system of uniformity has a chance of surviving translation into print. ‘House style’ will take care of everything. So go ahead and write U.S.A. or USA or even usa and it will come out the way They want it.” (pp. 29-30)

Except not quite. In a discussion that stemmed from a recent Slaw post that deals with the  new directive from the British Columbia Court of Appeal on legal citation, my colleagues and I mused that while citation certainly matters from the perspective of producing proper legal writing, what of legal research? In other words, does it matter when searching using citations whether it is necessary to ensure that proper citation formats are followed in order to maximize your search results?

In a nutshell, the answer is “kind of”. After spending a bit of time running test searches using parallel citations of the same case, we we found that both CanLII and Quicklaw are surprisingly adept at managing to ascertain the intentions of even the most ham-fisted of citation searches. However, Westlaw is clearly somewhat more finicky in terms of ensuring that there is proper punctuation and use of parentheses. However, if proper punctuation is followed, its returns are consistent with Quicklaw and CanLII.

The issue of proper citation in Canadian legal writing is something that is ostensibly made very clear with the use of the McGill Guide as the de facto citation standard in Canada. However, this is blurred somewhat by the fact that the seventh edition of the McGill Guide, which dropped the use of periods in its citations (e.g., DLR vs. D.L.R.), has not been universally adopted. Many courts, firms, and publishers (including, somewhat ironically, Carswell, which publishes the McGill Guide), have yet to make the change, preferring to hang on to the periods in their writing. So much for house style taking care of everything!

At the end of the day, to ensure that you maximize your research potential, it is wise to ensure that you are familiar with the proper forms of legal citation (in all of its myriad forms) and to put that knowledge to use when conducting your searches.

On a somewhat unrelated side note, the image above was borrowed from the brilliantly deranged website The Oatmeal which, in addition to some of its more irreverent comics, also includes surprisingly informative works on the life of Nicola Teslacoffee, mantis shrimps and, perhaps most importantly, grammar and punctuation. Sometimes it’s good to laugh while learning.

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