Being a smart arse

Lots of quotation marks

Learn here how to get quotation marks right. Or wrong.

Be warned. I’m about to have a rant. Something is tickling my inner demons. And has been for the last 20 years at least. I just can’t take it any longer! Things must be said.

If you’re not, unlike me, a graphic designer with OCD, you might laugh because it’s a teeny-tiny problem. Yes, they are teeny-tiny things, though for me as enjoyable as a swarm of gnats. I’m talking about quotation marks. Or more to the point, the straight – also more accurately called dumb – quotation mark.

Alright, if I haven’t lost you by now, welcome to the world of typography. I promise you, after reading this blog you will never look at a quote mark in the same way. Starting off, I’ll quote (no pun intended) Wikipedia and mark the important bits in bold:

Typographically, there are two types of quotation marks:

  • ‘…’ and “…” are known as neutral, vertical, straight, typewriter, or dumb quotation marks. The left and right marks are identical.
  • ‘…’ and “…” are known as typographic, curly, curved, book, or “smart” quotation marks. The beginning marks are commas raised to the top of the line and rotated 180°. The ending marks are commas raised to the top of the line.

Curved quotation marks are usually used in manuscript and typeset text. Because typewriter and computer keyboards lack keys to directly enter typographic quotation marks, much typed writing has vertical quotation marks. The smart-quote feature in some computer software can convert vertical quotation marks to curly ones, but sometimes imperfectly.

So, there you have it. I am a big fan of smart quotation marks (let’s call them smarties). They are designed to match the typeface you’re using which makes your writing prettier. But more importantly, they are more legible and that’s what good typography is all about.

Apparently, it’s typewriters we have to blame. Although traditionally quotation marks were of the curly kind, old-fashioned typing machines demanded the dumb ones (I call them dummies). Because these dumb marks are slimmer, they gained space and that was awesome for the typewriting person. Bloody brilliant. Begs one question though: Who in their right mind wants their computer to act like a typewriter?!

Because, for whatever reason, dummies are often the default setting for computers. On top of that, keyboards are dumb and software converts imperfectly. And that’s what my rant is all about. I just spend too much time converting dumb quote marks into smart ones. It has to stop!

Actually, there is no reason why we should still have to look at dummies in this day and age. Most computer fonts include both dummies and smarties. Word processors like Microsoft Word have a smart-quote feature but in my experience it just doesn’t always work. InDesign (as well as Outlook or Mail) ordinarily convert into smarties automatically but you can’t rely on it – because sometimes they just don’t. That basically means that you have to be as vigilant as a hawk to find all these hidden dumb marks! Search and replace might help but only if they recognise the opening and closing quote marks. If not, you’re back to square one. You can see where I’m going with this. In practice, every time I type an apostrophe or a single quote, instead of just hitting the quote mark key, I press OPTION + ] or OPTION + SHIFT + ] (Mac person here). If I was using a PC, it would be even more complicated. Holding down ALT and then typing 0145 will get you an opening single quote mark. That’s a hell of an interruption when you’re writing a blog or just want to get on with designing a leaflet.

WordPress doesn’t do default smarties at all. Because it’s web-based, dummies are standard and smart quotes want an HTML tag (like ‘) which you only get when you type in the selection of keys mentioned above. Bloody pain in the arse!

On top of this, the key combination required doesn’t seem to enter my muscle memory, so even after more than 20 years as a graphic designer, I still get it wrong. Sometimes I hit three to four different combinations before I get the desired quote mark. And that is bloody infuriating!

So to bring my rant to a conclusion, I appeal to software and computer developers out there: I get that smarties are a big no-no in the coding world and you’re probably not very fond of them. But as designers and editors, we need smart marks to be a default in Word and InDesign. No one uses these programmes for coding, so getting rid of those bloody dumb marks as a default would be a no-brainer. Or fix those smart-quote features at least. Just get on with it already. Cheers!

PS: Researching this blog, I actually stumbled over a plug-in for WordPress that converts dumb into smart quote marks. I’ll give it a try and report back.

PSS: I also read that WordPress automatically converts dummies into smarties. And, yes, it seems like it does. Have a look at the quote from Wikipedia above. The first bulletpoint contains dummies – and indeed, WordPress converted them into smarties. Fab! But hold on, look at the quote marks around the word ‘dumb’. The opening mark is correct, yes, but look at the closing mark! It is actually an opening mark. Crap. I rest my case.


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