A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 39: smart quotes for smart people

As you know, the American edition of Shady Characters was published on September 24th — which is, of course, National Punctuation Day. In honour of this auspicious event (National Punctuation Day that is, not the book’s publication), Jason Santa Maria, the polymath founder of Editorially and A Book Apart, launched a simple website to promote Smart Quotes for Smart People. As Jason succinctly explains:

"Don't be dumb." “You’re smart!” […] “Smart quotes,” the correct quotation marks and apostrophes, are curly or sloped. "Dumb quotes," or straight quotes, are a vestigial constraint from typewriters when using one key for two different marks helped save space on a keyboard.

Jason’s site provides a helpful primer on quotation marks and, er, primes and where they should be used, along with a guide as to how to input them. And he rightly points the finger at the typewriter as the villain behind the rise of the dumb quote; as we’ve explored here before, the “Great Typewriter Squeeze” marked the beginning of the end for more than a few previously healthy typographic marks. Take a look!


In other news, James Mosley at Typefoundry casts a sceptical eye over the history of the @, or ‘commercial at’. Shady Characters has, of course, discussed this mark before, but James’s article goes into much greater detail; though he doesn’t explicitly say so, it appears that the ‘@’ symbol started life as a simple abbreviation for any word beginning with the letter a before assuming its more mercantile aspect. James’s post is well worth a read, as is his blog in general.


Lastly, Shady Characters the book has attracted a few more reviews: Jonathon Owen reviewed it for his blog, Arrant Pedantry; Marcus Berkmann did the honours for The Spectator, and Jon Day wrote about it for The Daily Telegraph.

Also with regard to the book, Penguin’s young adult book site Spinebreakers is putting together a Q&A with yours truly. If any of Shady Characters’ younger readers would like to find out more about me or about the book, send your questions to Spinebreakers and I’ll do my best to answer.

Thanks for reading!

7 comments on “Miscellany № 39: smart quotes for smart people

  1. Comment posted by Brianary on

    Smart quotes cause an awful lot of hassle. Not only do they become â€unreadable†in a nontrivial number of applications (or, more often, unforeseen *combinations* of systems), but when automated they completely ruin technical documentation:
    {
    “message”:{
    “context”: { },
    “itemFilter”:{
    “appliesTo”: [
    {
    “Item”: “Item1”,
    “ItemElementName”: 0
    },]
    }
    }
    }

    See also http://www.hanselman.com/blog/WhyTheAskObamaTweetWasGarbledOnScreenKnowYourUTF8UnicodeASCIIAndANSIDecodingMrPresident.aspx

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brianary,

      I agree that smart quotes can occasionally be problematic, but I find straight quotes in prose (mostly e-books, in my experience) so jarring that I’m willing to put up with a few teething problems. As for technical documents (and speaking as an ex-programmer), I’d think that most people who have cause to write such documents will see and work around problems like this.

      Surely web developers and coders — precisely the groups likely to have to face up to the dreaded dumb quote — are best equipped to deal with these problems?

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Comment posted by Brianary on

      E-books are certainly important to get the right typographic quotes. Blog posts and the like can be trickier, since the feed format and feed consumers are an unknown. Emails, especially threads with many participants, tend to be a problem more frequently, since they bounce around different mail clients.

      As a problem that’s existed for much more than a dozen years, I’m not sure I’d characterize it as a teething problem, myself. If it is one, in the sense that there will be progress and eventual adoption (and not stagnation, as with keyboard layouts), we’ll have to be prepared for quite a lengthy childhood and adolescence, to stretch the metaphor.

      The example I provided came from a technical document I was reviewing *that very day*. This is a serious problem in all Word-related technical documentation I’ve been exposed to, across many vendors.

      As someone that (over?)frequently uses interrobangs, enclosed alphanumerics, emoji and the like, I’m really only seriously frustrated by these three characters (smart quotes and the em dash), simply due to where they ended up in the windows-1252 charset, which makes them fail so much more spectacularly than most others.

      I guess I’d rather the straight quotes be called “conservative quotes” than “dumb”, which seems to blame the victim of poorly written or poorly integrated systems: the user.

    3. Comment posted by Brianary on

      Also, apropos of this comment system, I’m frustrated by automated systems that changes an author’s content without consent. As it stands, contrasting examples and code would be impossible to provide. A preview feature, at the least, seems a reasonable expectation.

    4. Comment posted by Brianary on

      (Hmm. This sounds much more severe than intended.)

    5. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brianary — not at all! I appreciate the feedback on the comment system. There are live preview plugins out there, but choosing (and styling) the right one could take some time, and I’m snowed under with work on The Book at the moment. It’s definitely on my to-do list, however!

    6. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brianary — certainly, we aren’t where we need to be with quotes in terms of UI. Still, though, if a user wants to use smart quotes enough, then (for the most part at least) they aren’t prevented from doing so, are they? I think that’s the main thrust behind Jason’s site — let’s raise awareness of the problem so that users start to a) use smart quotes where possible, and b) agitate for their addition where not.

      I’m intrigued by your mention of the windows-1252 character set. What are the code points for dashes and quotes such that they’re problematic in that particular character set? Also, is it not the case that most systems can be persuaded to use UTF-8 as required?

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