hierarchical headings

Consider tiered numbers

Tra­di­tion­ally, hier­ar­chi­cal head­ings in legal doc­u­ments start with roman numer­als at the top level (I, II, III); then switch to cap­i­tal let­ters (A, B, C); then numer­als (1, 2, 3); then low­er­case let­ters (a, b, c); then romanettes (i, ii, iii); and then vari­a­tions of the above using two paren­the­ses instead of one, or other barely vis­i­ble changes.

This is a ter­ri­ble way to label hier­ar­chi­cal head­ings.

  1. Roman numer­als and romanettes stink. They’re dif­fi­cult to read. (Quick, what num­ber is XLIX?) They’re easy to con­fuse at a glance. (II vs. III, IV vs. VI, XXI vs. XII.) If what we mean by I, II, III is 1, 2, 3, then let’s just say so.

  2. Let­ters aren’t much bet­ter. Though we imme­di­ately rec­og­nize A, B, C as equiv­a­lent to 1, 2, 3, the let­ter-to-num­ber cor­re­la­tion gets weaker as we go past F, G, H. (Quick, what num­ber is T?) If what we mean by J, K, L is 10, 11, 12, then let’s just say so.

  3. Mix­ing roman numer­als and let­ters results in ambigu­ous ref­er­ences. When you see a low­er­case i, does it denote the first item or the ninth item? Does a low­er­case v denote the fifth item or the 22nd item?

  4. By using only one index on each header, it’s easy to lose track of where you are in the hier­ar­chy. If I’m at sub­head­ing (d), is that (d) under super­head­ing (2) or (3)?

Lawyers should take a cue from tech­ni­cal writ­ers, who solved this prob­lem long ago—by using tiered num­bers as indexes for hier­ar­chi­cal head­ings.

So instead of:

You’d have:

To my eyes, this sys­tem is more under­stand­able—because it only uses num­bers, it avoids ambi­gu­ity or mis­cues. It’s also more nav­i­ga­ble—because every tiered num­ber is unique, it’s always clear where you are in the hier­ar­chy. And every word proces­sor can auto­mat­i­cally pro­duce tiered num­ber­ing. Con­sider it.