|Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2008
The difference between writing and legal writing is, of course, the law. To write about law, one must first do legal research. A careful legal writer then conveys to the reader the thoroughness of that research and the support of various authorities through citations.
Don’t stop reading yet! An article on citations would be far too boring — both for me to write and for you to read.
A bit more fascinating than the details of spacing and abbreviation, though, are the links that tie the citations to the text; we call them signals. Because these little links can provide such powerful clues to legal analysis, they’re worth reviewing at least once every decade.
Sources for Signals
Citation systems are designed by courts, professional organizations and law students with too much time on their hands. The oldest national system is The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, which was designed by students on the Harvard Law Review and is periodically "updated" whenever the party fund in Cambridge runs low.
The clearest national citation system is the ALWD Citation Manual: A Professional System of Citation. It is written by the Association of Legal Writing Directors (a society of legal writing professors) and Darby Dickerson, the dean of Stetson University College of Law. It uses one set of rules and one format for all documents, a clear advantage over the two systems of the "uniform" Bluebook.
Various courts have their own style manuals. Oregon’s appellate courts use the Oregon Appellate Courts Style Manual, which covers citation on pages 16 through 58. (It has lots more than citations in it. See "Writing with Oregon Style" in the April 2008 OSB Bulletin.)
These manuals don’t all agree on all points. The Bluebook and the ALWD Manual are most consistent with each other and the most widely used, so we’ll focus on their signals.
Leave it to those bright students at Harvard to decide that the best signal is no signal. Yes, The Bluebook has long dictated that no signal at all demonstrates the strongest support a citation can provide to your writing. The ALWD Manual followed suit.
Use no signal in three instances. First, no signal is appropriate
when the source cited directly states the proposition in your text. We call
this explicit support (to be contrasted with implicit support in a moment).
Second, use no signal before citing the source of a quotation in your text.
Third, use no signal before a citation that identifies an authority named
If a source offers only implicit support for your idea, you must use the signal see when citing that source. See suggests that the reader must do a little mental work to get from the proposition in the cited authority to the idea in your text. Thoughtful writers add an explanatory parenthetical in see citations, showing the reader how to make the inference. The ALWD Manual gives an additional use of see: use this signal when the cited authority has dicta supporting your idea.
Here’s a glitch. If you learned The Bluebook between 1996 and 2000 — the reviled 16th edition — you may remember a different rule for see. If you read a law review article published during that period, you might be confused by the rampant use of see signals. Well, the kids at Harvard realized that it was hard for us lesser lawyers to figure out the difference between explicit and implicit support, making it difficult to determine whether to use no signal or see.
The solution — for four years — was to require the use of see before virtually every citation. During that brief period, the all-important no signal was available only for identifying the source of a direct quotation or identifying a source referred to in the text. After a minor uprising, the previous distinction between no signal and see was re-adopted. Somehow we lesser lawyers have managed to cope.
The signal accord comes after another signal and citation. When your text quotes or refers specifically to one source, cite that source first with an appropriate signal (remembering that no signal is a signal). Then, after accord, list other authorities that also state or support your idea. One common use for accord is to show agreement between the laws of various jurisdictions.
introduces additional, positive support for the idea in your text, but that support is not as strong as the support indicated by no signal or see. The see also signal is appropriate even when the cited authority can be distinguished in some way from authorities you have cited previously. Explanatory parentheticals are often useful following see also citations.
Here’s an ALWD Manual hiccup. The first edition of the ALWD Manual did not include the see also signal, purportedly because it was so close to other signals that it was deemed unnecessary. Either the ALWD authors changed their minds about the similarity, or they realized that the signal was entrenched and just needed a clearer definition. Regardless, subsequent editions of the ALWD Manual have included the signal see also.
Cf. and Compare
The signal cf. (note the period remains mid-sentence) introduces an authority that supports your idea by analogy. To actually compare two authorities, use compare … with … (where the ellipses would be replaced by the citations). Again, use explanatory parentheticals to make these analogies and comparisons clear to
The signal e.g. means that the citation you are providing is to just one of many sources that state the same proposition. E.g. relieves a writer from listing in a string cite all 29 cases that say the
A simple e.g. at the beginning of a citation is actually combining no signal with e.g., indicating that other sources also offer explicit support. The common signal see e.g. says other sources also offer implicit support. (Aficionados of The Bluebook will note that I omitted the commas that manual inserts in some — but not all — signals. The ALWD Manual consistently omits commas in signals.)
Because the legal world is not a neat place, research often reveals authorities that contradict our points. Of course, we can’t ignore those, as tempting as that might seem. Instead, we use signals to indicate the contradiction between our brilliant ideas and the contrary propositions in the cited authorities.
Contra links your text to an authority that directly contradicts your idea. (Do be sure to explain to your reader why that contradiction is not fatal to your argument.) Contra is thus the opposite of no signal. But see and but cf. are the opposites of see and cf.
Given the time you devote to both careful research and clear writing, mastering signals is essential for linking citations to text. See you in 2018 for our next review of citation signals!
ALWD Citation Manual: A Professional System of
Citation (1st ed. 2000, 3d ed. 2006).
The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation
(16th ed. 1996, 18th ed. 2005).
Oregon Appellate Courts Style Manual (2002), available at
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. As the Luvaas Faculty Fellow for 2008-2009, she is grateful to the Luvaas Faculty Fellowship Endowment Fund for support of her articles in The Legal Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 Suzanne E. Rowe