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Quotation marks and apostrophes     (posted 2024-03-03)

Good typography is such a hassle. Then again, ugly-looking text is no good, either. Today I’m going to look at quotation marks and apostrophes.

Back in the 1960s when ASCII was invented as a way for computers to encode text, we only had room for 94 printable characters. With 62 taken up by A-Z, a-z and 0-9, this didn’t leave much room for a full complement of typographic characters. And actually, 94 is pretty generous by typewriter standards. Early typewriters didn’t even have 1 or 0—you just used lower case L and O for those. Also, computer printers and computer monitors weren’t exactly high resolution back then, rendering the finer details of typography moot.

So we ended up with the "typewriter style" character  "  for both opening and closing double quotation marks, and also used as the double prime (to indicate lengths in feet or durations/arcs in minutes). The ' got even more overloaded as the single opening and closing quotation marks, the (single) prime and, more importantly, the apostrophe. These days we have different Unicode characters for most of these, increased font size for clarity:

 "  can be  “   ” __or  ″ 

 '  can be or  ′  or  ’  again

Yes, although we have a Unicode character U+0027 APOSTROPHE (i.e., the ASCII character '), somewhere deep in the supplementary notes it's mentioned that you should use U+2019 RIGHT SINGLE QUOTATION MARK as a punctuation apostrophe. Ok, so now we know.

Things are much more complex for quotation marks, because different languages/regions use different quotation marks. Even in English there is no consensus, with Americans typically preferring double “quotation marks” and Brits preferring single ‘quotation marks’, which each using the other type under special circumstances, such as for a quote within a quote.

Various European countries/languages use either the «double» or ‹single› guillemets, with the French further complementing things by having a narrow non-breaking space « like this ».

And then there's almost any combination of high/low, mirrored and/or 180° rotated combination of comma-like quotation marks. According to Wikipedia:

”Finnish”, „German“, „Polish”

In Dutch, the ‘British English’ style with single high quotes and the opening quote a "6" and the closing quote a "9" is now most commonly used, although in the Netherlands, the „Polish” style with opening double low commas and closing double high commas was traditionally used before computers were in common use. In Dutch speaking Belgium, the French « guillemets » were/are common.

The rather obvious reason for the move in Dutch from the „traditional” quotation marks to the ‘new’ ones is that it actually became very easy to use the new ones during the 1990s, as using the traditional ones is still a problem under Windows. However, Microsoft Word has a ‘smart quotes’ feature that turns 'this' into ‘this’ and "this" into “this”. And that's your only choice.

On the Mac, it became possible­­—but not easy—to type the traditional Dutch quotation marks around 1990. However, Apple also implements the smart quotes feature (almost) system-wide. And unlike Windows, you get to choose your preferred quoting style:

“abc”, „abc“, „abc”, ”abc”, « abc », «abc», »abc«, “abc”

(The single quote replacements can be set separately.)

Even if you choose "abc" and 'abc', your apostrophes will still be turned into ’s. You can access this feature in System Preferences under Keyboard → Text and also in the preferences of applications like Pages. Additionally, you can use select Edit → Substitutions from the menu in many applications to apply these smart quote substitutions to all the existing text in your document, or just the text you’ve selected.

If, like me, you write a lot of text where ' really needs to be ' and " really needs to be " (because they’re part of a program or configuration file), you really don’t want smart quotes to be on, perhaps save for the apostrophe replacement. The problem is, if smart quotes is on, there is really no way to insert ' or " into your document. But selecting some text and performing the substitutions is a good way to get the quotes you want. It’s certainly easier than memorizing how to type them.

Let me use the last two paragraphs of this post to consider what kind of quotation marks make the most sense. First of all, I think double makes more sense than single as the default choice. The single ones clash with the apostrophe, which is no good. I’d say〝this〞could be a nice choice if you insist on separate opening and closing quotation marks. (I really don’t get the upside-down curly quotes.)

But why would you? This seems very workable. Or perhaps something that looks more like ″this″. Some fonts already showc the curly quotes much like that. The advantage of using just and is that you can easily convert ' ↔︎ and " ↔︎ style="background-color: #e0e0e0;">” in both directions.

by .

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