When smart quotes aren’t

Image: Donald Trull, signalinc.com

I’d have said, “… you’ve got to fix,” but you get the point. (Image: Donald Trull, signalinc.com)

It’s a term that begs to be used: apostrophe catastrophe. And it has become so cliché that I won’t use it here. There are already dozens of articles and at least one blog titled “Apostrophe Catastrophe.”

Most of the writers describe the misuse of apostrophes and cite signs saying “banana’s” or “bracelet’s ring’s watch’s” or menu headings like “Extra’s.” Those are indeed egregious mistakes, and I’m assuming my readers are educated enough to know that.

But these examples are not the kind of misuse I wanted to correct. I was looking for a solution to the smart quotes (aka curly quotes) dilemma, wherein one’s computer decides on its own that a single open (or opening) quote is a legitimate substitute for a proper apostrophe. It is not. The two curve in opposite directions and the open quote is wrong when an apostrophe is required. (Computers are programmed to insert an open quote whenever a space precedes the character. That may be smart, but it’s not always correct. Programmers are not grammarians, apparently.)

In a May 2013 article in The New Republic, Paul Lukas presents a more detailed discussion of the problem. Another excellent post is “Smart Quotes and Dumb Apostrophes” by Donald Trull. We’re going to lose apostrophes if people don’t start paying attention and typing/printing them correctly.

quotestraightcurlySo this was the latest burr under my saddle: In the last paragraph of my last post, I wanted “… ’em,” the contraction of “them.” My oh-so-smart computer spit out “… ‘em,” which is wrong. An apostrophe is required here, not a single open quote. I was determined to fix the problem, even if it meant inserting a single white open quote in the preceding space in order to force a single black close quote.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to try that. I found that on a Mac, typing option + shift + ]  produces a proper apostrophe at the beginning of a word. At least it looks correct on my Mac screen. I hope that’s what non-Mac users see when reading. There’s no telling how WordPress, different browsers, and different platforms might interpret it. For Windows users, the Alt code appears to be Alt 0146.

Okay, that’s the end of today’s little typography rant. I hope I’ve raised some awareness of the problem and that you’ll take the time to type proper apostrophes when necessary.



Categories: Computers, language

20 replies

  1. “Programmers are not grammarians, apparently.”

    As an old editor I can certainly bemoan the problem with you. But there’s one saying that I picked up when I was editing user manuals for a supercomputer start up company. I had an engineer (programmer) come to me one day and offer to help me if I got in over my head. His exact statement was: “I’m something of a writer myself, you know.”

    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve repeated that when dealing with people who are absolutely certain (like the above programmer), that the way they spell stuff was right and the dictionary was wrong.

    Good luck on your quest…

  2. It’s hard for me to fret over this one since my eyes are getting bad enough where I can’t quite tell the difference. 😦

  3. And of course there are those of us who don’t know any better to begin with… 😕

  4. Talking of hopeless causes; the eradication of Mr. Websters 1828 American Dictionry of the English language!

    Nothing annoys me more than the deliberate misspelling of words in the English language (and pretty well every other language nowadays) and words of common usage by English speaking people but of another language; words from the Metric system immediately springs to mind.

    When will Americans learn that a metre a litre are not English words and therefore not subject to Noah Websters idiocy and were in use in France 2 or 3 decades before he bastardised the English language for his own self aggrandisement and that they should be left alone.

    Being early Sunday morning this is my grumpy sermon for the day. 😕

    Oh and by the bye the misuse of the apostraphe has ceased to bother me now; at my age I’ve got other things to worry about, like if I wake up tomorrow who an I going to annoy 😉 🙂

    • We Americans are notorious for doing things our own way, whether it’s right or not. And having not adopted the metric system, most of us aren’t really concerned with how to spell it. No King’s English for us! 😉

      I’m afraid we’re well on our way to destroying the apostrophe, too.

  5. Beg pard PT but in my hmbl opin u r fixn d wrng prob whch is textng. 😆

  6. Hi PT– I don’t suppose you read the Sunday comic, “Mallard Fillmore,” today? Granted, he is a conservative, traditionalist sort, but today’s is in sync with your post. I’m far from perfect in my writing, but it grates when a plural is printed/written as a possessive. And I SO agree that txtng, along with the demise of cursive writing in schools, is dooming society in terms of proper English, both spoken and written. Thinking there must be an editing gene in my mix 🙂

    • I’ve ranted about the demise of cursive writing, along with everything else that’s causing a degradation of the language. Not that it does any good. Too many people just don’t care. That’s an even bigger problem than our declining educational standards. 😦

  7. Don’t know how I missed this post but I did…

    Since you didn’t mention this I’ll assume you may not be aware but if you use Word or WordPerfect for example to type your post (which I often do), then paste your post into your WordPress processor it will normally indicate any words using an apostrophe as spelling errors. If you check to see what your error is you won’t readily recognize the problem because the word correction it is presenting appears to be the same that you typed but actually it is the apostrophe that WordPress spellchecker is taking issue with. When it comes to apostrophes, it apparently only recognizes plain text. 😕

    • Early on, I tried using Word. I forget why, but I know I gave it up as an unnecessary additional step. And maybe because of integration problems like you describe. I know the WP spellchecker is badly lacking but didn’t know about the apostrophes. That seems like such a basic thing.

  8. Uhm, both your “… ’em” currently appear correctly with an apostrophe, at least on Android browser…

    • Hmm, you are correct. Now I have to wonder if what displayed when I first posted this (and the previous post) and whether the programming has been fixed to correct the problem I’ve been talking about. At least I’ve made people aware of the problem, but it could be that programmers have begun addressing it in ways I wasn’t aware of. Which is fine with me. We need both apostrophes and single opening quotes.

      Thanks for your sharp eyes. Mine aren’t what they used to be. Good to know there’s someone else out there (hopefully younger) who notices such details.

“The opinions of others should not deter you from being yourself.” ~ Lailah Gifty Akita

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