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This week, you get a full colonic!

Sorry, couldn’t resist that.

Actually, full treatment of this subject is beyond the scope of a brief piece, but here are some basics.

The colon (:)
The colon is most frequently used to introduce a list of items, but it can often be omitted. There is no need for a colon in the following sentence:

The syndicate of lenders consists of: Bank of Montreal, Bank of Nova Scotia and TD.

The colon is correctly used after the word ‘sentence’ just before the example; it introduces what is to follow, where that doesn’t just flow naturally from the earlier part of the sentence. As H.W. Fowler put it, the colon ‘delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words.’

The colon can also be used to great effect in what Fowler calls ‘gnomic contrasts’. For example:

Man proposes: God disposes.

Do this sparingly: over-use dulls the effect.

The colon can also be used to introduce a quotation, generally where the context is not conversational (The witness stated: ‘Blah blah blah’.).

The semi-colon (;)
Also used with lists, but to separate items that have internal commas. Like so (assuming for the moment that we’re still using 1990s names and punctuation):

The following firms were represented: Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt; Stikeman, Elliott; and Blake, Cassels and Graydon.

Confusion might arise if the semi-colons were absent (and you didn’t know which names went with which). Note the effective use of a ‘serial’ or ‘Oxford’ semicolon before and; but where this isn’t necessary in the interests of clarity, I’d omit it.

The semi-colon can also be used to break up long, convoluted sentences that contain lots of subordinate clauses and commas – but it’s doubtful that you want to write in a prose style reminiscent of a nineteenth-century novelist, right?

A good use of the semi-colon is to connect two units which could be separate sentences, but which are logically linked. Using a comma would make this a run-on sentence (which is bad):

I couldn’t think of a single thing to say; situations like that leave me at a loss for words.

The bit after the semi-colon doesn’t so much complete the thought in the first part as explain or describe it. The semi-colon offers a softer and less abrupt break than a colon; it’s only half a colon, after all.

Next week: miscellaneous little things that annoy me

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


This article was originally published in the November 2016 edition of Wired West.

At the recent 2016 SLA conference in Philadelphia, one of the most popular sessions was Hidden Treasures: Mastering Grey Literature. This session was co-sponsored by the Science-Technology Division, the Social Science Division, and the Taxonomy Division. A panel of speakers from institutions such as Cornell University and the Canadian Library of Parliament spoke about their favourite sources for grey literature. Inspired by that presentation, we have assembled here a very Canadian primer on grey literature.

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia offers a very accessible definition for this field of literature:

Grey literature … are materials and research produced by organizations outside of the  traditional commercial or academic publishing and distribution channels. Common grey literature publication types include reports (annual, research, technical, project, etc.), working papers, government documents, white papers and evaluations. Organizations that produce grey literature include government departments and agencies, civil society or non-governmental organisations, academic centres and departments, and private companies and consultants.

Grey literature may be made available to the public, or distributed privately within organizations or groups, and may lack a systematic means of distribution and collection. The standard of quality, review and production of grey literature can vary considerably. Grey literature may be difficult to discover, access and evaluate but this can be addressed through the formulation of sound search strategies. (Wikipedia)

In our own work, we have had ample opportunity to help clients dive deep into research topics through grey literature. Grey literature can be especially important when the client has budgetary constraints and limited access to specialized subscription-based databases. It can also be helpful when addressing either a very old or very new topic. New topics may not yet have been addressed by academic journals due to the long lead time required for vetting and publication. Older topics may no longer be addressed by current publications on the topic and relevant commentary may only be available through digitization of archived materials

We provide a short list of our favourite sources here:

Social Sciences Research Network
The Social Science Research Network (SSRN) is an open repository “devoted to the rapid worldwide dissemination of social science research.” It includes a wide range of free content, including abstracts for working papers and forthcoming papers, article preprints, and conference papers. SSRN is comprised of twenty-four research networks representing various branches of the social sciences—accounting, law, leadership, marketing, and political science, to name just a few. The Network was acquired by Elsevier in May 2016, but insists it remains committed to keeping content free to submit and download.

Google or Google Scholar
Google has the ability to capture high-value commentary that may not be published elsewhere. Increasingly professionals and academics are being encouraged to blog about their topics both as a way of spreading knowledge and engaging in business development. For example, the Cornell LII blogs and offer academic and lawyerly commentary on current events intersecting with the law.
The academic offshoot of Google, Google Scholar, is a rich source of grey literature from government agencies, professional societies, digital repositories, and post-secondary institutions. While access to some full text content is restricted by publisher paywalls, the “all versions” feature can help researchers locate related working papers, article pre-prints, and the like. Researchers may find Google Scholar less helpful for recently published materials, as its algorithms tend to favour older content.

Federal Government White Papers and Green Papers
White papers are official documents presented by Ministers which explain the government’s policy on a certain issue. In contrast, green papers are issued by government to invite public comment on an issue prior to policy formulation. These two terms are also used interchangeably at the provincial level. This federal repository managed by the Library of Parliament includes links to PDFs of many of the papers and fulsome indexing information at the very least. For equivalent papers issued at the provincial level, there is no one repository, however searching via GALLOP, listed below, is a good first step.

GALLOP Federated Search Portal
GALLOP is a federated search portal covering provincial legislature libraries, such as BC’s Legislative Library. The scope of coverage is detailed here. Many of these libraries include download links to PDFs of some materials in their collections. Materials held by these libraries often include reports relevant to public policy or government-authored documents about the implementation of public policy.

University Repositories, Such as cIRcle at the University of British Columbia
cIRcle is described as “an open access digital repository for published and unpublished material created by the UBC community and its partners. Its aim is to showcase and preserve UBC’s unique intellectual output by making content freely available to anyone, anywhere via the web.” You can search the repository using the search box in the middle of the homepage, or from the advanced search form, here. During the SLA conference session on this topic, Jim Del Russo of Cornell University Library also shared this link to DigitalCommons@ILR, the repository at Cornell.

The sources we’ve listed above are an excellent starting point for a Canadian librarian or researcher; however, should you need to engage in international grey literature searches, we encourage you to consult a university research guide on grey literature from the country or area in question. For example, the University of New Mexico offers a grey literature lib guide with an american health sciences emphasis, while Curtin University in Perth, Australia offers an Australia-specific guide to grey literature. Another good all-purpose American lib guide on grey literature is this one, from the University of Michigan.

by Bronwyn Guiton & Lindsay Tripp


The humble comma seems to baffle many. Space doesn’t permit full discussion of the subject (you may be relieved to hear), but here are some pointers.

If you’ve ever read a contract or a will drafted by an English solicitor, you’ll have noticed the complete lack of commas (omitted because they can be the source of ambiguity or error, as the cases attest*). Read that English document aloud, and you’ll be left breathless: no pauses.

The basic rule is that a comma should be inserted wherever there is a natural pause for the reader. Don’t overdo it, though: too many commas make things choppy. Lawyerly writing definitely suffers from excessive use of commas.

Use a comma to separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet): The plaintiff was severely injured in the accident, but the limitation period has now expired.

Use a comma to set off information that is useful but non-essential or in some way extra (it could be removed and the sentence would still make sense): The comma is, of course, a useful thing or The plaintiff, who has suffered multiple injuries, is unable to perform basic tasks.

Separate items in a list with a comma (or a semi-colon, if individual items within the list contain internal commas).

But, you ask, is there a comma (sometimes called a ‘serial’ or  ‘Oxford’ comma) before the ‘and’ (or ‘or’) preceding the final item in the list? In the USA, generally; in the UK, generally not. Take your pick, but I tend (as in most things) to go with the Brits. That final comma looks fussy and a bit cluttered.

Sometimes it’s useful, though. This sentence could use a second comma, methinks: This book is dedicated to my parents, Margaret Thatcher and God. Ambiguities could also arise where a list is longer and more complicated.

The comma defines and limits. I asked my brother Ed for help and I asked my brother, Ed, for help mean different things. The first means I have brothers other than Ed; the second, only one brother, and he’s called Ed.

Commas are also used to separate multiple adjectives describing a noun: She drove a little, red Corvette. The comma drops out, however, if the final adjective is an integral part of the noun that follows: The birdwatcher spotted a beautiful bald eagle (unless it was lovely and had no feathers on its head).

Don’t separate what should not be separated – like subject and verb, or verb and object/complement. This is wrong: The thing is, that … [worse: adding another is before that]. And so is this: Many Somalis have termed the 2015 election, historic (from, 25 October 2015; the comma must go).

The comma does connect, but beware the run-on sentence, which (incorrectly) splices two independent sentences with a comma. Don’t do this: I am sending you this article, I thought you would find it interesting. Instead of that comma, you need a semi-colon, a period or a word like ‘because’.

This is correct: He said, “I disagree”, and then went on to add, “but I won’t argue the point with you.” Use a comma before quoted speech (or a colon, although that wouldn’t work in the example just given because of the structure of the remaining part of the sentence). Put punctuation outside the quotation marks unless it’s actually part of the quotation (the final period is, the comma after ‘disagree’ may or may not be). In the USA, it’s usual to put all punctuation inside the quotation marks, but this is not desirable.

Next: colons and semi-colons

*Some expensive comma cases:

Osmium Shipping Corp v Cargill International SA, [2012] EWHC 571 (Comm)

Telecom Decision CRTC 2006-45

AMJ Campbell Inc v Kord Products Inc (2003) 63 OR (3d) 375

Coyote Portable Storage LLC v PODS Enterprises Inc (2011) 85 Fed R Ev Serv 459, 2011 WL 1870593

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Administrator’s note: thanks to Karen Sawatzky for this guest tip!

Today’s tip is courtesy of Melanie Bueckert, legal researcher extraordinaire at the Manitoba Court of Appeal via Brian Roach, articling student at Tapper Cuddy LLP.

The Research Log (well deserving of its capitalization) is a deceptively simple template that forces the legal researcher to document all sources consulted and note what about that source was of importance. You can also include anything that wasn’t important so you know not to review it again. If used properly, your research memo practically writes itself. I can vouch for its usefulness – the first time I used it, my memo flew off its pages. It’s a simple, three column document:

research log

I now open one for every memo I write. If I need to return to the topic, I have a draft of what my process was, so I can get up to speed quickly. It always amazes me that sometimes the simplest idea is pure genius. Thanks Melanie and Brian, for showing this to me.

Karen Sawatzky, Tapper Cuddy LLP
Library Technican Dialog


Not things you did as a teenager that you’d rather forget about, but past tenses of verbs that continue to cause people trouble.

The past tense of this verb is not dove. That’s a bird, mispronounced. The past tense is dived (or should be – the Yanks differ on this one).

Lay and lie
A confusing pair. From last time:


As in lead me astray. The past tense (and past participle) is led. Similarly, mislead and misled.

Confusion may arise because these two don’t follow the same pattern as read, which is the same in the past and present tenses: I read the last chapter of the book last night; I always read in bed before I go to sleep.

American usage to the contrary, the past tense is not pled or plead: it’s pleaded. Always.

Honey, you shrank the kids! Now that they have shrunk they will need new clothes in smaller sizes for their shrunken bodies.

And it’s drink, drank, drunk(en); sink, sank, sunk(en); spring, sprang, sprung; stink, stank, stunk (although in colloquial speech one hears stunk as the past tense as well as the past participle; there’s that song about the Grinch).

It isn’t think, thank, thunk, though – except in the jocular Who’d have thunk?

The past tense is not snuck but sneaked.

The past isn’t spit – it’s spat. Same deal if you replace the p with an h.

Up next: comma conundrums

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


I was asked what the library equivalent was of our help desk’s standard “try turning it off and back on” advice. I’m not sure there’s an equivalent, but “try a different browser” comes close.

A not infrequent problem is that certain sites and databases don’t display properly (or sometimes at all) on a given browser. If you find that a web page or online document isn’t displaying properly and you can’t figure why, try looking at it with a different browser.  Some vendors design their databases to work with a specific browser. (In one case, I was assured by a vendor that “all lawyers use Internet Explorer” so there wasn’t a problem.)

And with regards to the “try turning it off and back on” advice, a bonus tip: always make sure you’ve saved everything first.

Susannah Tredwell


More words you may be mixing up.


Next time: problematic pasts.

-Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Administrator’s note: thanks to Natalie Wing, Law Librarian at Yukon Public Law Library, for this guest tip!

WARNING: this post may contain disturbing content for those with deep anti-marking-up-of-library-book sensitivities.

Back in ye olden days, law clerks and law librarians used to write in the margins of case reporters, literally “noting up” the pages with citations for subsequent appellate decisions. Indeed, it would seem that librarians both sanctioned and participated in the marking up of library books, but of course only for very specific purposes, and conceivably only with the tidiest of (and most tidily placed) writing. Here is an example of an old noted up reporter from the Sir James Dunn Law Library (Halifax, NS), found and shared by reference librarian Nikki Tanner:

noting up

References to the practice of “noting up” can be traced back to at least the 19th century, when The Law Times provided practitioners with “Notes for Noting Up”, and when proposals for legal textbook volumes included plans to bind in blank leaves specifically for noting up so that the textbooks could contain the latest law:

A MEMBER has suggested that the first text-book of the Society should be one which shall comprise the entire Practice of Law [….]

It is further proposed that the volumes should be bound with blank leaves for noting up, and that in any digest of the Society a figure should refer to the page in the text-book in which the case or statute digested ought to be noted, so that the volumes should always keep pace with the existing law until a new edition is rendered necessary by the number of references (Verulam Society, (1844) 3 The Law Times 275).

This post was the result of a question asked of the broader Canadian Association of Law Libraries community. Many thanks in particular to Lynne McNeill, Nikki Tanner, and Katie Albright for knowing such things in the first place, and for sharing their knowledge.


Words you mix up at your peril.

confusing pairs 1confusing pairs 2

Next week: confusing pairs, part 2

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Good keyword searching practice varies from database to database, depending on how the data is structured and how the search engine works. But there are some principles that apply to most situations.

For legal research, whenever you have at least a basic understanding of the legal concepts involved, it is usually best to start out casting your net wide, and refine or expand as you go. The goal, for this strategy, is to create a search that will include ALL relevant documents and as few irrelevant ones as possible.

The following process involves an imagined scenario in which I am searching for case law on drug trafficking and entrapment. But hopefully the process is generic enough that it can apply to a variety of situations.

Step 1: Brainstorm for keywords

Think of (1) all the key facts associated with your legal problem, and (2) any legal concept that may apply. So if I am dealing with a drug trafficking case, the list of keywords might include: undercover, police, bar, drugs, suspicious, ask, request, solicit, cocaine, powder, trafficking, guilty, entrapment, dealing, selling, narcotics, controlled substances.

Step 2: Identify key concepts, group keywords

Group your list of terms into two or more key concepts. There will usually be one or more legal concepts, and one or more concepts that describe a particular factual scenario. Try to think of every possible variant (synonym) for each concept.

For example, if I want to use the entrapment defence on a drug trafficking charge, I might employ one factual concept and two legal ones:

Concept 1: drugs, controlled substances, narcotics, cocaine

Concept 2: trafficking, dealing, selling, pushing

Concept 3: entrapment

Step 3: Create search query

This is the stage where you can look at your keywords more critically, and perhaps eliminate some of them. For example, if the search engine is likely to use terminology drawn from the relevant federal statutes, then you can eliminate synonyms for “trafficking” – as this is the official name of the charge, and is certain to be used in any case on point. By eliminating synonyms, you decrease the likelihood of netting bad hits (e.g. that use a word like “dealing” in an unrelated context).

Separate synonyms using the OR operator and separate concepts (groups of synonymous terms) with the AND operator. Remember to review the search syntax (sometimes under the heading “searching tips”) for whatever database you are using. For example, is the AND operator the word “AND” or an ampersand (&) or the default (no operator). Bearing that in mind, our first search may look something like this:

(drugs OR “controlled substances” OR narcotics) AND trafficking AND entrap!

Step 4: Execute search and analyze results

Regardless of how many or how few hits you get on the first try, it is critical to analyze the results. How many hits are there? If too few, may need to drop a concept, or add some synonyms to existing concepts. If there are too many hits, you may need to add a concept, or drop some synonyms.

How are the results arranged? Relevancy? By date? Or by court level or number of cites? Can you change the order? If you cannot rank by relevancy, then take extra care to keep the number of results manageable, because the best ones might be at the bottom of the list. If you sort rank by date, consider applying a date filter to the initial search (if that is an option).

Look at a few hits – are they relevant? In the best, most relevant, results, check for key terms in the document that you may not have included in the search query. If you see a lot of poor results, check to see how and where your search terms appear in the document. Any terms that are producing poor results should be removed or modified. In some cases, consider adding a “proximity” operator, to search for two terms in the same sentence, or separated by less than a certain number of characters.

Step 5: Reformulate search

No search will net perfect results, no matter how well you refine it. On the other hand, you will rarely get optimal results on the first try. Generally, you can expect somewhere between 3 and 10 iterations to achieve a manageable set of relevant documents. But your research on this database, whatever database it may be, is still not done.

Step 6: Work Laterally

As I said, it is rare that any single keyword search will net 100% of relevant results. So now you need to read your results (the cases), and make note of references to other cases that did not come up in your search results. Then read those, and make note of further authorities. Also, for highly relevant cases, make sure to note them up, track down any citing references, and then look for citing references backward and forward in those (if they are on point), and so on.

I think of mediated searching, using a search engine or classification system, as “vertical” (think drilling down), and searching using cross-references from other relevant documents as horizontal or “lateral.” Some research tasks call for predominantly one strategy or the other, so a good researcher will know when and how to employ either strategies, or the two in combination.

Step 7: Stop

Know when to stop. You are finished your research when you either (1) stop seeing citations to unknown cases commenting on your topic (in other words you’ve seen them all, or very close to it), or (2) see repeated references to a small number of higher court authorities on which you can rely.

[This tip by Ken Fox originally appeared on the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library’s Legal Sourcery Blog]