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Monday, March 12, 2007

The pilcrow

Until this morning, when I came across its name while researching something entirely unrelated, I never knew that the paragraph symbol — ¶ — is called a "pilcrow."

That strikes me as an important but small piece of information that is unlikely to ever be useful, but I shall nevertheless try to remember it.

However, this leaves me feeling intellectually unsatisfied. Is there a comparable name for the section symbol — §?


I likewise recall being vaguely disappointed that neither in my general law school education, nor in my Teaching Quizmaster class on citation form, nor even in my service as a member and editor of the Texas Law Review, did I ever find a comprehensive set of rules on when, for example, in drafting an agreement, one ought to use these symbols. With the exception of legal treatises and, especially, loose-leaf services, both symbols seem to be fairly uncommon in the source documents (for example, the agreements) themselves. But in citations and other shorthand references to those source documents, both kinds of typographical symbols are quite commonly used.

But they are used inconsistently. And that bothers me. It bothers me that in one of the two major treatises on federal civil procedure, the authors and publishers used section signs, and in the other, they used pilcrows. Can't we all just get along?

I distinctly recall practicing the writing of both of these symbols some time during my first year of law school. I can do both now, along with the ampersat and the ampersand — @ and &, "at" and "and" symbols respectively — without even trying hard. (Of course, I write less and less by hand anymore these days. And try using the word "ampersat" when dictating your email address to someone over the phone. It's guaranteed to annoy.)

Even very good corporate lawyers with whom I've been acquainted have seemed to be quite schizophrenic in referring to the various chunks of their contracts, indentures, prospectuses, and so forth as either paragraphs or sections, subparagraphs or subsections, and the like. ("Chapters" and "subchapters," in anything but statutes, seem to be comparatively rare and eccentric.) I don't understand how they tolerate that degree of anarchy in what is otherwise such a buttoned-down legal practice.


Inflation, of course, has damn nearly killed the cent sign — ¢, bless its heart. But I still know it in ASCII for those rare occasions when I need it.

Now, in both my professional writing and my blogging, I know my em-dashes from my en-dashes, and I pay attention to the difference between my dashes and my hyphens. In legal writing, I try to remember to do a global search and replace to substitute non-breaking spaces for regular breaking spaces before all my pilcrows (and double pilcrows) and section-signs (and double-section-signs), lest those typographical symbols end up at the end of a line while their following integers are on the next line. There are few typographical symbols sadder than a widowed pilcrow.

Curled quotation marks, single or double, are both invidious and insidious. If you don't understand that, if you don't understand their potential for causing snarls and thrown letter-openers and mass search-and-replaces and ASCII catastrophes of all kinds, you obviously haven't been paying attention. Sure, Microsoft Word and WordPerfect now both shove them down your throat by default. Can you not see the conspiracy there? Is Bill Gates' name ever taken in vain more frequently than by writers who type "(c)" and look away for a second, not noticing until too late that their "(c)" has been automatically and stealthily replaced by a changling, a "©"? In the twenty-first century, "a-b-copyright symbol-d" has become, unfortunately, a common, almost natural, progression.

Mastery of a word-processing program is only achieved when you can, by brute force and shortcuts and knowledge of obscure menus and undocumented commands, force that program to produce its printed output in exactly the format you desire. Support staff who can do this for helpless lawyers are especially valuable. Lawyers who themselves have mastered these techniques are ... jedi knights.


To give you an idea of how long I've been sufficiently obsessive to be concerned about such things: I recall that the 1979-1980 editorial board of the Texas Law Review once spent the first half-hour of one of our meetings arguing whether the second comma in a "see, e.g.," citation ought to be italicized. Then, having decided that the answer was "yes," we argued for another half hour whether it was worth the expense to the Review to continue instructing our printer to make changes from our galley and page proofs to reflect that preference. (Again, the answer was "yes.") You would be much mistaken if you thought that these were subjects on which only one or two editors expressed strong views. But being friends and classmates, aspiring professionals, who held each other in high regard and shared a keen mutual respect, we did manage to keep from coming to blows, and to rally 'round the final decision of the editor-in-chief (which was in accord with the majority view of his editors) without further strife or argument.

As southerners and westerners and followers of Harvard's Bluebook, it was always our consensus view, however, that the Washington and New York (and United States Reports) affectation of not italicizing (or underlining) the "v." in case names was unworthy of even remarking upon, much less following. I got into a heated argument about this with my secretary in the summer during which I clerked for a New York law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell. I believe she thought that she risked losing her job by agreeing to my demands that she underline those v-for-versus notations in case citations. (They still offered me a full-time job, but they probably figured they would eventually assimilate me into the non-underlined-v. culture; I'm not sure if my summer secretary kept her job after I left or was cut loose as a traitor once I'd returned to Texas.)

Somewhere in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is an insane asylum whose only residents are the authors and, more recently, the revisers, of the Bluebook. And they have their own circle in Hell, in which the demons don't give a damn about the difference between supra and infra. Me, my nightmares tend toward usage instead of citation form. "Comprise" and "composed of," "disinterested" and "uninterested" — these things torment me in both my sleep and my waking copy editing.

New recruits to the law review in my day had to learn a set of uniform handwritten notations to communicate what we wanted our type-setters to do. There was one notation for "delete," and another for "delete and close-up." The word "stet" had mystical qualities associated with forgiveness and redemption. I suspect this notational language has mostly been lost in the current day, in which every man or woman is his own publisher, and "printer" is something sold by Canon or Hewlitt-Packard instead of referring to a typesetting company.


The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and local rules of the state and federal courts in which I usually practice, in contrast to some other jurisdictions' state or local rules (including, I believe among others, California's), fortunately do not require the routine numbering of either lines or paragraphs in pleadings. (One local judge does insist on 14-point typefaces, however, and the Texas appellate courts, superstitiously, require 13-point typefaces.) Nevertheless, as a matter of consistent practice, I have been scrupulous for many years in using progressive integers to number every paragraph of my pleadings. This allows me, or opponents, or the courts, to later specify a particular paragraph easily using just an integer preceded by (ahem, I knew it not by that name before this morning) a pilcrow; or perhaps by both a number preceded by a pilcrow and also a page number, if we want to be all belt and suspenders about it. My paragraphs need numbering in the same way that the TV detective Adrian Monk needs to touch and count every parking meter he walks past.

I'm also fascinated, but somewhat troubled — suspicious, frankly, of pathology or heresy — about regional variations in what I've heard referred to as "the box." "The box" is what's at the top of pleadings, wherein typically is listed the names and, often (but not always) the capacities of the parties (for example, "XYZ Corp., plaintiff" and "John Doe, individually and as next friend of Johnny D. Doe, a minor, defendant and counterclaim-plaintiff"); the cause or docket number (for example, "2007-20158" in current filings in the Harris County District Courts, or "Civil Action No. H-07-4102" in the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division); the particulars of the court (for example, "In the District Courts of Harris County, T E X A S, 129th Judicial District," or "In the County Civil Court-at-Law No. 3 of Harris County, T E X A S," those spacings dating back to typewriter days and manually full-justified margins for "the box").

And it's quite common, but not universal, for lawyers to use a "vs." instead of a "v." in "the box," even though they'd never think of putting a "vs." into a citation of a casename in a brief or pleading or motion. Why? (Why not?)

In many venues, in constructing "the box," it's typical and customary to use a vertical row of section signs to separate the names and capacities of the parties in a column on the left, with the docket number, perhaps the court and jurisdiction name, and perhaps other pertinent information (the judge's name; whether it's a Chapter 7 or 11 or 13 or an adversary proceeding in bankruptcy court) in a column on the right.


And yet: In other parts of the country, using section signs as column separators is considered uncouth. They may instead use close-parenthesis marks exclusively for that purpose.


In particularly Manichean jurisdictions, they use as their vertical row to divide the two columns a close-parenthesis symbol immediately followed by an open-parenthesis symbol:


Such people also devour their young and walk backwards at every full moon. They are to be shunned and quarantined.

The rule of thumb for safety is that when you're drafting a pleading for filing in a jurisdiction or court in which you have not regularly practiced before, you make your box look like your opposing counsel's box. Of course, if you're the plaintiff and you're filing the initial pleading, you have no model to follow, unless you somehow dredge one up from another case that someone else has filed there.

In twenty-six years of practice, I have yet to have a single pleading or motion or brief or other legal filing rejected because I referred to "paragraph" when I should have said "section," or because my document's "box" used section symbols rather than close-parenthesis marks. I'm nevertheless always vaguely worried that some clerk, somewhere, will shout "We can't accept this for filing! Look at those pilcrows where there should be section-symbols! Send this back to that damned lawyer from Texas, and may God and his malpractice insurer have mercy on his soul if our rejecting his filing and sending it back causes him to miss a jurisdictional deadline!"


Non-lawyers among you who've struggled through to the end of this post will be convinced that I am, or have gone, insane. Lawyers among you, at least the lawyers with adversary practices, will probably nod and sympathize with some or all of these comments. You are the ones who will be repeating to yourself, after reading this post: "Pilcrow, pilcrow, pilcrow."

Posted by Beldar at 09:22 AM in Humor, Law (2007) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to The pilcrow and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» A good way to impress people at parties. Not. from the (new) legal writer

Tracked on Mar 12, 2007 10:33:53 PM


(1) Neo made the following comment | Mar 12, 2007 4:14:55 PM | Permalink

I once had it explained to me that a "#" is not a number sign but rather an "octalthorpe", meaning "eight ends."

(2) htom made the following comment | Mar 12, 2007 4:37:02 PM | Permalink

"Octothorpe" is the cross-hatched thing used for pound weight or number.

I've only seen the section symbol called "section sign" or "sect", although I did have a boss who called it "snakes" (he wasn't serious.)

(3) cboldt made the following comment | Mar 12, 2007 5:59:48 PM | Permalink

The lawyer/geeks may be reminded of "waka waka bang splat"

(4) TCO made the following comment | Mar 12, 2007 9:57:35 PM | Permalink

Maybe there is a good reference on formatting that explains this.

(5) Patterico made the following comment | Mar 12, 2007 11:02:18 PM | Permalink

I always preferred Word Perfect 5.1, and resented having to give it up. For one thing, you could put a "home space" after each pilcrow and section symbol, and they would never be orphaned.

(6) DRJ made the following comment | Mar 13, 2007 12:39:18 AM | Permalink

This typographic website notes that the pilcrow "symbol was used in medieval writing to mark the end of one train of thought and the beginning of another. Later, the convention to start a new paragraph on a new line was invented, and the pilcrow was no longer needed."

There's no end to fascinating stuff in the universe. Thanks for an interesting post.

(7) DRJ made the following comment | Mar 13, 2007 2:51:10 AM | Permalink

PS - I think the definitive answer on pilcrows v section signs is to use whichever one Charles Alan used.

(8) Stuart made the following comment | Mar 13, 2007 8:54:05 AM | Permalink

Beldar, I think you need also to explain to us how, when proofreading or cite-checking, you can tell whether a period is italicized or not. In theory, being italicized means it's rotated a few degrees. Same question for a hyphen.

(9) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 13, 2007 1:52:04 PM | Permalink

DRJ: Wright used the section sign; Moore's (and Bernie Ward), the pilcrow.

Stuart: One had to look really hard to notice whether the commas about which we were arguing back in 1979 were or were not italicized. But with the sharp vision of the young, and the willingness to pick nits that would, in an earlier age, have probably made us clerics arguing about angels and pin-heads, we did indeed scrutinize our commas. I don't recall that we argued over periods or hyphens being italicized or not.

Re-reading this later and thinking back to my pre-word processor days at the law review, I remember simulating the section sign on typewritten pages by over-printing two capital S characters with a slight up-and-down twist of the typewriter platen. I can't seem to recall, though, if there was any similar trick for simulating a pilcrow.

I do remember paying an extra $50 or so for my fabulous new IBM Correcting Selectric II in 1978 because it had the "legal" keyboard and typeball that included a key with the section sign and pilcrow, the latter (if I recall correctly) the shifted version. (I should never have sold that typewriter; what an elegant and well-engineered piece of hardware it was!)

(10) Kent made the following comment | Mar 15, 2007 8:20:42 AM | Permalink

If there isn't already a special word for the section symbol, we can always make one up. How about "schwadilla?"

(11) Ric Locke made the following comment | Mar 15, 2007 5:32:00 PM | Permalink

The first thing to do with Word (or, indeed, with any Microsoft software, up to and including operating systems) is to go through, laboriously, and disable anything and everything labeled "smart" or "automatic", or which otherwise hints that it might be helpful. It generally takes an hour or so to expunge the last remnants of RedmondThink, but it is time well spent as it will save multiple hours of cursing later. Good for your soul's ease for that very reason, too.

I have one copy of Word in which I have forgotten how to massacre "clippy". The inventor of that abortion will be placed in Hell before a stairway leading to Heaven, but every time he tries to take a step the helpful Salvation Assistant™ will appear and tell him he can't do that because he fails to achieve the Approved Style.


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