The Definitive Guide to Quotes, Apostrophes, and Primes

Quotation marks, apostrophes, and primes (also known as inch and foot marks) are some of the most misunderstood and misused elements in typesetting. The confusion between them harkens back to the days of typewriters when there was just one style—now called ‘typewriter quotes’—to represent them all. But today’s computers are intended to set professional typography, not just typing for the casual user, therefore the proper glyphs are available in most fonts. Understanding the distinction between these marks and the task of getting them right can be challenging, but essential for the creative professional.

If you think you’ve heard me ranting about this topic before, you are right. That is because the misuse of any of these glyphs is one of the most widespread of all type crimes in digital typography, committed by students (who have an excuse), novices, and seasoned professionals alike. This can be due to lack of knowledge, but also because too many creative professionals don’t think it is their job to be concerned about this. They are wrong, as every design job is a group effort, and any error reflects poorly on the entire team, and most especially, the client. So ranting aside, here is all you need to know to be on the right side of the law—typographically speaking!

There are distinct differences between ‘smart’ typographer’s quotes, ‘dumb’ typewriter quotes, and true primes. Set in Arno Pro.

There are distinct differences between ‘smart’ typographer’s quotes, ‘dumb’ typewriter quotes, and true primes. Set in Arno Pro.

Quotation marks, also referred to as smart quotes, typographer’s quotes, and sometimes curly quotes (although they don’t have to be the curly design) are used to set off a word, passage, or group of sentences. They have an open (or left) and a closed (or right) version, and are design-sensitive, meaning they look different for each typeface, as they are intended to match, or blend with each design.

Apostrophes are used to indicate possession and omission. The actual glyph used for an apostrophe in typesetting is the closed (or right) single quote—not a typewriter quote, or an open single quote which frequently appears by default when typing as software is not yet smart enough to know the difference in usage. A good way to determine if the correct glyph is being used is to compare it to a comma, as in most fonts, the comma is the same design as the true quote.

Primes, more commonly referred to as inch and foot marks, are different from quotation marks in that they more neutral in appearance (as opposed to matching each typeface). True primes are actually slightly angled, tapered marks, but are not available in very many fonts, For this reason, the glyphs most often used to set measurements are the typewriter quotes (also called straight or dumb quotes) available in just about all fonts. A select few OpenType fonts have true primes, either instead of the old-fashioned typewriter quotes or in addition to them. When available, true primes should be used for measurements, but typewriter quotes have become the accepted practice in digital typography.

Smart quotes are design-sensitive glyphs, compared to the relatively simple design of dumb, typewriter quotes.

Smart quotes are design-sensitive glyphs, compared to the relatively simple design of dumb, typewriter quotes.

Getting it right!

Misuse of quotes and primes is one of the most common typographic errors in professional typesetting and can be found everywhere from ads, brochures, book covers, magazines, and newspapers, to web sites and blogs, movie titles, motion graphics and other digital media.

Why is this type crime so prevalent? Because the standard computer keyboard layout is based on the typewriter keyboard with its old-fashioned straight quotes serving double duty, and designers and software manufacturers are left to straighten out the mess!

The proper use of quotes and primes should also be applied to the web and all digital media, if possible. In some instances, smart quotes have to be manually coded, while other scenarios allow for automatic conversion. Unfortunately, there are some environments that do not support the use of smart quotes—or the use of both smart and dumb quotes—at all or make it too tedious to implement on a large scale. These include some content management systems (commonly referred to as CMSs) as well as some email marketing systems, so do your research carefully beforehand.

There are some situations where errors might automatically occur. One is when you use any method to globally convert dumb quotes to smart quotes, in which case measurements will also be converted. For that reason, be sure to proofread all final copy, and convert back any incorrect smart quotes to primes, or dumb, typewriter quotes. The other potential situation is in words that use apostrophes for omissions. The default glyph in front of any character will be the open single quote, but for omissions (such as the ’90 or rock ’n roll), the only correct glyph is the apostrophe, which is a closed, single quote. Check carefully for these errors, and change them back manually.

Always check for the correct usage of quotes and measurement glyphs. The circled punctuation is incorrect.

Always check for the correct usage of quotes and measurement glyphs. The circled punctuation is incorrect.

Here are some tips to help get it right:

  • The first step is to make sure the original copy contains typographically correct punctuation. One way to help accomplish this is to change the default setting in Microsoft Word from “straight quotations marks” to “smart quotations marks.” Suggest this practice to all who submit final copy. (Note that when typing directly into design software, this is less of a problem as the default setting of most design apps is to automatically use Typographer’s Quotes when typing.)
    Changing the default punctuation of Microsoft Word to automatically change straight quotes to smart quotes will minimize the work you have to do later to correct them.

    Changing the default punctuation of Microsoft Word to automatically change straight quotes to smart quotes will minimize the work you have to do later to correct them.

     

  • If you’re working with a document with incorrect punctuation and want to clean it up before insertion, use a utility such as Tex-Edit Plus that can clean up a document to your specifications in seconds.
    Tex-Edit Plus can both ‘smarten’ as well as ‘stupify’ punctuation, as desired.

    Tex-Edit Plus can smarten or dumb down punctuation, as desired.

     

  • For a long-term solution, create a guide of best practices that includes all required typographic conventions, including the use of smart quotes. Distribute the guidelines to all the writers, editors, copy editors, proofreaders, designers, webmasters and programmers so that everyone is on the same page, so to speak.
  • When preparing or submitting copy for digital use, call out the appearance of quotes and primes so the programmer or developer can do whatever necessary to get it right.
  • Import text properly, using the Place command available in most design software. When using InDesign, select Show Import Options, and choose the Option to Use Typographer’s Quotes towards the bottom. Review imported text and make sure all measurement are set with primes, and omissions are set with proper apostrophes.
    When importing text into InDesign using Place, select Import Options that allow for the automatic conversion to typographer’s quotes. When importing a Word document, the appropriate dialog box will appear, as shown above.

    When importing text into InDesign using Place, select Import Options that allow for the automatic conversion to typographer’s quotes. When importing a Word document, the appropriate dialog box will appear, as shown above.

     

  • If you are using copy from an email, a PDF, or the web, make sure the punctuation is corrected before you copy and paste. (Here is where Tex-Exit Plus comes in handy.)
  • Check for the correct use of apostrophes (and not open single quotes) in contractions and omissions.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, always proofread your work carefully to check for these important type crimes. The more eyes that review final copy, the better.

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Posted on: February 1, 2017

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. For more information on attending one or bringing it to your company, organization, or school, go to her site, call The Type Studio at 203-227-5929, or email Ilene at info@thetypestudio.com. Sign up for her free e‑newsletter, All Things Typographic, at www.thetypestudio.com.

12 Comments on The Definitive Guide to Quotes, Apostrophes, and Primes

  1. Amen Sister! I’ve been harping on this for years. Since I started in the type world about 1970, people have told me to “not sweat the small stuff” [note this wrong use of quotes 😉 The comment box doesn’t allow a choice]. Thanks for pointing this out. I hope to show others this info.

  2. Bravo, Ilene. Part of the problem is also the stubbornness of programs like Word, that have only one rule for automatically using typographer’s “quotes.” Here’s a workaround for the leading apostrophe problem:

    MS Word ALWAYS wants to use a single open quote mark at the beginning of a word. That’s the correct thing if you’re quoting someone saying, ‘It is just a scratch,’ but incorrect if you’re writing, ‘tis but a scratch.

    Here’s the fix. Type a single letter BEFORE the apostrophe, continue with the actual word, and then go back and delete the single letter.

    1) x’tis
    2) ’tis

  3. Ironically, I had to type that reply in Word and paste it into the comments box.

  4. Why is there not an apostrophe on either side of the “n” in rock ‘n roll? There are two missing letters. “Make sure all omissions use apostrophes…”

  5. I still see primes used in place of apostrophes, even in logos. Ugh.

  6. The misuse of quotes, apostrophes and primes makes me CRAZY!

  7. Thanks for an excellent article! I knew how to use apostrophes, quotation marks, and primes, but the software, not so much. . .

  8. This is one of my pet peeves. I am going to share your article with my coworkers. Thank you!

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