Welcome to Do You Copy, a new semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.
Once upon a time, in order to put words on a page quickly and avoid having to write them out by hand, people used a machine called a typewriter. It smelled like ink and metal and oil and made clicking and pinging noises that many people still find delightful, and it occasionally inspires white men who are Oscar-winning actors to write fiction that The New Yorker will probably publish. It also bestowed upon the digital generation one of its most divisive typographical tools: the straight quote.
You are probably familiar with the straight quote, as it is the quotation mark of choice for many web publications. There are some good reasons for this! However, many people—especially those who, for one reason or another that may or may not include childhood trauma, are extremely passionate about typography—absolutely despise it. They even have a mean and somewhat ableist name for the straight quote: dumb quote. These people also sometimes call curly quotes, which are the more traditional form of quotation marks in American and English typography, smart quotes.
Admittedly, if you are not the type of person who really cares about typography and/or traffics in writing and/or editing for a living, the debate over straight quotes and curly quotes may seem like the debate over straight fries and curly fries—rather purposeless, either because (a) you are aware that they are effectively identical in function (and taste, unless they’re seasoned differently) or (b) it is obvious to you that one of the two options is more aesthetically (or gustatorily) pleasing. Either way, it’s probably clear that this is all pretty purely a matter of personal preference.
Except…it’s not! There is a whole complex history behind the trend toward the straight quote in favor of the curly quote, which began with the typewriter but was exacerbated, like many other things in the very late 20th century, by the computer. And while curly quotes are still preferred by editors (and especially book editors, who tend to exhibit ferocious loyalty to the traditions of their rather old trade), the straight quote has become a staple of Internet writing thanks to the complexities of code.
The reason for this is that the use of curly quotes while coding can result in a whole mess of problems, which is mostly the fault—as Glenn Fleishman noted in 2016 in a piece for The Atlantic, which both outlines pretty much the entire history of quotation-related typography and makes excellent use of the elasticity of Tom Hanks’s goofy face—of competing computing platforms back when the Internet was a new frontier:
[I]n the early days of the web, different computing platforms—Unix, Mac, and Windows, primarily—didn’t always agree with how text was encoded, leading to garbled cross-platform exchanges. The only viable lingua franca was 7-bit ASCII, which included fewer than 100 characters, and omitted letters from alphabets outside English and curly quotes…. ASCII and a few similar small character sets acted as a limitation only early on. With the right effort, even by the late 1990s, a browser could properly show the right curly quotes. But effort is the right word: While browsers could show typographers’ quotes, it was hard for users to type them.
It’s certainly gotten a bit easier, although it’s still somewhat frustrating on a Microsoft machine, and even on noted typography dweeb Steve Jobs’s beloved Mac it takes an extra step. Straight quotes are, like it or not, the digital standard. Much of that comes from the funky things that curly quotes do when used in many a content management system—namely, curl in the wrong direction, and seemingly at random. This apparently has something to do with key commands while coding, and theoretically there are plugins that fix this, but those plugins are probably specific to different sorts of CMSs, and also nothing is compatible with every type of code, and at this point why bother, just use the damned straight quote.
At this juncture it should be clear that the whole matter is overly complicated, so let’s simplify it: Use curly quotes when you can, because they are lovelier, and use straight quotes if you’re coding, because who wants to deal with manually checking that every curl is the right curl? (This is essentially also what the Chicago Manual of Style says, albeit in a more persnickety manner and using many more words.) And if you are in doubt as to how to curl your quotes, here is a handy guide touching on the easiest method for both Windows and Apple, courtesy of the type fiends at Butterick’s Practical Typography:
As for when to use a single quote or double quote? Go ask your high school English teacher—maybe over a plate of curly fries.