Res Ipsa Loquitur, 1021 MEBJ, Pg. 150

PositionVol. 36 3 Pg. 150


No. Vol. 36 No. 3 Pg. 150

Maine Bar Journal

October, 2021


Dots And Dashes: the Morse Code of Punctuation

Communication has always been essential to society. Ancient civilizations used drumbeats or smoke signals to exchange information over long distances. In the early 1790s, the semaphore, consisting of a series of hilltop stations with large, movable arms, was used to signal letters and numbers, seen by other stations through telescopes. Such methods were unreliable, however, because they required an uninterrupted line of sight between receptor points and were dependent on the weather. A better method of transmitting information was needed to facilitate reliable long-distance communication.1

During the 1830s and 1840s, Samuel Morse and other inventors developed the telegraph, which revolutionized long-distance communication by transmitting electrical signals over a wire laid between stations.2 Using a code consisting of dots and dashes, telegraph operators could send complex messages across telegraph lines. By 1866, telegraph lines stretched across the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe.3 Although the telegraph and the Morse Code were later supplanted by the telephone, fax machine, and electronic communication, dots and dashes laid the groundwork for those later innovations.4

Te Dots and Dashes of Legal Writing

Just as dots and dashes facilitate communication over long distances, dots and dashes can assist the legal writer in communicating effectively on paper. Specifically, attorneys need to know how to use ellipses, hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes correctly in their written communication. These seemingly innocuous punctuation marks, if used skillfully, can make a difference in the clarity and polish of a legal memorandum or brief.

Dots: Ellipses ( . . . )

An ellipsis is a set of three dots or periods ( . . . ) signaling an omission. Although some people omit the spaces before, after, and between the dots (…), that practice is incorrect except when a dot is adjacent to a quotation mark, in which case there should be no space ( . . .”). In informal writing, people use ellipses to represent thought trailing of: If only I had . . . Oh well, it’s too late now. An ellipsis can also show hesitation: She wasn’ t really . . . well, she thought she . . . I just don’t know.5 Some people throw them into sentences indiscriminately, replacing the periods at the ends of sentences and other punctuation marks. In formal writing, this is not acceptable.

Ellipses are most often used within quoted material. Te following two excerpts from Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron DeHart will provide a basis for examples showing how to use ellipses in quotations. Excerpt 1

Nor was this the only hint that the Law School, like the rest of the university, still remained male turf. Cornell’s library had separate entrances for men and women, but Lamont, the undergraduate library at Harvard where old periodicals were kept, was designated for men only. Te restriction meant little until Ginsburg’s second year, when late one night she needed to use the collection of aging magazines and journals to check a footnote in an article. She pleaded with the guard to bring the journal to the door; she just needed to take a look at it, she explained. He refused. In the end, she had to ask a male classmate to do the job.[6]

Ellipses at the Beginning of a Quotation

Do not place an ellipsis at the beginning of a quotation to indicate the omission of material. You can use brackets to change the capitalization of the first word of the quotation to match the surrounding material. In the following examples, taken from Excerpt 1, the words “Nor was this the only hint that” are omitted. Te first letter of the word “the” has been placed in brackets and capitalized to match the rest of the sentence.

Correct: “[T]he Law School, like the rest of the university, still remained male turf.”

Incorrect: “. . . the Law School, like the rest of the university, still remained male...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT