What’s So Smart About Those Quotes

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Amongst typographers and type-lovers it is often considered to be a type faux pas to use the wrong type of quotes. Did you know there is a wrong type of quote, a quote from the wrong side of the tracks? Well there are such things known as smart quotes and dumb quotes. Smart quotes (sometimes known as book quotes) are the curly or curved style of quote. The have an opening and closing style. Dumb or straight quotes are straight up and down, sometimes tapered vertical marks.

So what’s the big deal? It really depends on how pedantic you want to be with your web or print typography. Many readers may not notice which type of quotes you’re using but if you love your type and like to do things the right way, you can be specific about the quote marks you’re using. If you’re using Microsoft Word or a similar text editor, you’ll find that the software actually fixes the quote marks for you as you go. Desktop publishing software such as InDesign sets smart quotes as default. Dumb quotes are only used between measurements, for example 5’ 11”.

The illustration below shows a number of different typefaces with smart and dumb quotes.

SmartAndDumbQuotes

When it comes to web typography you can add smart quotes manually using Hex codes as follows:

Quotes

There are other tools that can help you to add or remove smart quotes to your web site. SmartyPants is a free plug-in for Movable Type, Blosxom, and BBEdit that translates plain ASCII punctuation characters into “smart” typographic punctuation HTML entities. WordPress sets smart quotes as default, but there is a plug-in called Unfancy Quotes which lets you turn them off (curly quotes can interfere with code).

 

Do you pay attention to smart and dumb quotes? Does it bother you when you see them used incorrectly?

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  • neal

    That’s brilliant, but where’s the explanation about which is the correct set to use when..?

  • Heidi Helen

    Facebook does dumb quotes by default (in comments/ statuses when you type the quotation marks “like this”. Funny I never knew the name for it, but I did notice. You should so add Facebook “like” buttons to your Site Point articles so I can like this.

  • Jake Noble

    I feel a huge negative has been missed out here, it needs to be addressed for the sanity of coders! For type they may be great, but a lot of time they are a great annoyance and not needed.

    As a PHP developer they are a complete nightmare, users/clients pasting Word content into TinyMCE or other WYSISYG editors used in CMSs often get confused as their content breaks and the ‘smart quotes’ are not maintained when saved for use on the site. This then needs to be explained to the user who often doesn’t ‘get it’. I have never looked at a ‘smart quote’ or normal quote on the web thought it looked incorrect, on the web they are simply not needed.

    • Michael

      +1

  • Anonymous

    Yes, it is certainly important in any usage in which the meaning or readability would be changed or otherwise weakened by incorrect quote marks. Generally, correct use of punctuation helps to ensure that sentences are more readily readable and comprehensible. I suspect that people who do not care about punctuation have overlooked why it matters and therefore think that it does not really matter, which is a loss for their readers.

    Regarding your mention of hex codes: I always use the character versions (such as rdquo) when they are available because I find it a lot easier to remember them. I wondered if there is any technical advantage to either type.

    • John

      As far as “correct use of punctuation” is concerned, is there a difference in meaning between a smart quote and a dumb quote?

      I agree punctuation matters in that incorrect use of punctuation can give a sentence a completely different meaning. I am not so clear on how the use of smart vs dumb quotes produces the same problem.

      Is the issue simply that smart quotes are more visible and thus using them more clearly defines the quoted portion of text?

  • RicktheArtist

    I use smart quotes all the time, unless I run into technical challenges with data exchange or other oddball situation.

    But when i do smart quotes, I use the html entities, which I find much easier to remember:

    ‘ – left single quote
    ’ – right single quote
    “ – left double quote
    ” – right double quote

    • RicktheArtist

      Well when I posted the entities disappear… so trying again

      ‘
      ’
      “
      ”

  • dj

    I read mostly technical blogs and feeds. At least I try too :-) I noticed some blog authors use smart quotes in their code snippets. That’s kind of annoying.

    • Jake Noble

      Yes – especially when coding on a Mac or on Linux. They break everything!

  • Dave Mohrman

    Many may know and use these smart quote alternatives too:
    “ (left double quote “)
    ” (right double quote ”)
    ‘ and ’ (left ‘ and right ’ single quote, respectively)
    I like these code versions over their hex versions as they’re a lot easier to remember. I haven’t encountered a problem with cross-browser rendering yet.
    – – and — — will provide you with en – and em — dashes as you might need them also.

  • Dave Mohrman

    As far as using smart or “dumb” quotes, it really depends on my time and where they’re used. I used to hunt them down with Find & Replace searches or hand code them, trying to maintain semantic integrity. But, you know what? Nobody seemed to care (or understand what “semantics” were) and I’ve got a lot of other things to spend quality time with besides a Find & Replace dialog box!
    General rule of thumb for me is, I will code for smart quotes (or dashes) when the display text will be significantly larger than the rest page content, or when actually using them in a measurement with a quote nearby- because visually, at standard web font sizes, they make little difference for the effort to include them.
    Note however, that nonvisual browsers may interpret the dumb quotes contrary to their intended application.

  • Anonymous

    It may be interesting that in some languages (polish or german) you have the opening smart quote on the bottom of line like this. For polish it’s: „word”
    The codes are:
    &bdquo ; and &rdquo ;

  • Amit

    IMO it’s better to use the named HTML entity codes rather than hex codes – the hex codes might not work if the page encoding is changed.

    ‘ – left single quote
    ’ – right single quote
    “ – left double quote
    ” – right double quote

    BTW, it bothers me a lot to see dumb quotes being used anywhere, not just on the web!

    Amit | recaptured.in

    • Bobby Jack

      No, the hex codes should always work, no matter what the page encoding is. On the other hand, the HTML named entities won’t work outside of HTML. If your content might end up being displayed in an XML context, your entities will break, so numeric entities are safest.

      • Dave Mohrman

        So besides PHP coders vs. Hex, and XML coders vs. Named Entities, AND typographic nit-pickers vs. Dumb Quotes, does anyone know of the proper way to code quotes that is both semantically correct and/or ACCESSIBLY correct? Remember, that not everyone who uses the web will even SEE the difference between “Smart” and “Dumb” quotes, but how the non-visual browser interprets the coding may make a difference. There may be other sematic considerations as well. And maybe it’s all a non-issue with HTML 5 encroaching. I thought I read that there will be new tags specifically for creating sematic structure in web content?
        Come on Site Point know-it-alls, hip us to the way forward!

  • Amit

    I meant
    ‹ – left single quote
    › – right single quote
    &ldaquo; – left double quote
    &rdaquo; – right double quote
    :)

  • Brugge Restaurant

    nice………….Facebook does dumb quotes by default (in comments/ statuses when you type the quotation marks “like this”. Funny I never knew the name for it, but I did notice. You should so add Face book “like” buttons to your Site Point articles so I can like this………………………….

  • Aankhen

    I’m compulsive about this. I use a customized Dvorak layout to get at quotation marks, dashes, etc. more easily using AltGr. In Emacs, where I spend a lot of time, I use an improved version of typopunct.el, which usually gets it right with minimum hassle.
    In general, though, I wish people would be a little smarter about using “smart quotes”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen punctuation mangled by a clueless user copy & pasting from his Windows-1252 Word document to a UTF-8 form field. I’m also getting tired of seeing people forget to turn off their oh-so-smart quotes in code snippets. And algorithms that get it wrong because of HTML tags (for example, “foo“) are silly.

    So besides PHP coders vs. Hex, and XML coders vs. Named Entities, AND typographic nit-pickers vs. Dumb Quotes, does anyone know of the proper way to code quotes that is both semantically correct and/or ACCESSIBLY correct?

    Dave, all of these are correct: named entities in HTML; numeric character references in HTML & XML; and simply embedding the UTF-8–encoded characters in UTF-8 documents, as I’m doing right now. Problems arise with the last method when you mix ’n’ match encodings (hello, newspaper sites that advertise UTF-8 while containing copy in Windows-1252), or when you deal with applications that don’t understand the encoding you’re using. Screenreaders in particular can have problems, so if you’re worried, stick to the kind you find on your keyboard.

  • OtherRob

    Well, to be totally pedantic, dumb quotes should not used for measurements such as feet and inches. Instead you should use prime and double prime marks. They do look a lot like dumb quotes, but true primes are slightly “tilted”. The character entities are “prime” and “Prime” (for double prime marks).

  • Jon

    “smart” quotes are dumb. It is annoying how people paste stuff from some word document into a web page and then we get a bunch of garbage instead of a simple quote. I wouldn’t care about having extra fancy quotes (I don’t see why some people like Roccoco quotes instead of simplicity but they do) if they din’t break things. But they add no value in my opinion and break things – therefore are dumb.