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Type Tips

Curly Quotes

June 28, 2016 by
David Sudweeks
David Sudweeks

The standard QWERTY keyboard, like its predecessor the typewriter, has a single key for opening and closing both single and double quotes (and for the apostrophe which is the same as a closed single quotation mark). From this we get ‘straight quotes,’ or ‘dumb quotes’ which at arm’s length and squinting, might pass for proper apostrophes and typographic quotation marks, or as I call them here, curly quotes.

The apostrophe and related quotation marks are based on the comma, which curls clockwise outwardly from its center, gesturally separating what was just read, from what follows after. When typesetting copy written in English, quotation marks similarly enclose the quoted passage* with a pair of floating inverted commas shaped like a tiny 66 opening the quote, and two floating commas (shaped like 99) closing it. ‘Dumb quotes’ are by design direction-agnostic.

*Other languages have their own conventions, such as German, where the quotes turn the opposite way, and the opening quote sits on the baseline:

“Variance meets Consistency” → „Varianz trifft Konsequenz“

Not all curly quotes are particularly curly. Some are squared off at the top, and some only suggest the curvature with simple, angled strokes.
Not all curly quotes are particularly curly. Some are squared off at the top, and some only suggest the curvature with simple, angled strokes.

Dumb vs. Smart

The actual characters I’m talking about when I say ‘dumb quotes’ are these, labeled with their Unicode name and code point, and HTML entity:


Curly quotes, or ‘smart’ quotes, as they are sometimes called, are these characters:





If you work on a Mac (with a standard English keyboard layout), you can type the above curly quotes using the square bracket keys ( [ ) or ( ] ) plus Alt to open quotes, or Shift + Alt to close quotes. (The apostrophe is the same as a right single quote.) If you’re on a PC, forget it. You have to memorize and enter sequences like 0146 on the number pad while holding down the Alt key. I guess that’s not too bad.

Using single and double quotes, and apostrophes

A point on usage: Double quotation marks enclose quotes; things that were actually said that can be cited to a specific instance. Single quotation marks are formally reserved for quotes within a quote: “Then she said, ‘Come this way.’ and I followed.” You’ll notice however that I also use single quotes to mark commonly heard terms that I can’t attribute to a single person. I also prefer single quotes when paraphrasing someone’s words, but these last two are just my preference and not part of any established style I’m aware of. Apostrophes mark possession or places letters have been omitted in contractions or abbreviations.

Of course, quotes and apostrophes are also used incorrectly, and one proper use of quotes is recreating their misuse. For example, in the header image, no one can be cited as having said “Quick and Easy” in relation to that can opener. “Well that was a quick and easy way to get that can of beans open.” No. Nobody said that. But the fact that someone thought putting quotes around “Quick and Easy” was a good idea, that’s funny. There’s some potential for comedy here. See also grocer’s quotes.

When software fixes dumb quotes for you, and when it makes it worse

Try to type ‘dumb quotes’ into a design program, or paste in a client’s text file, and watch what happens. InDesign and other popular software, such as Microsoft Word and the Wordpress CMS change ‘dumb quotes’ to the appropriate curly ones (with success, most of the time). It commonly trips up on apostrophes, rendering them instead as left single quotation marks.

Oops. That apostrophe is upside down.
Oops. That apostrophe is upside down.

Typesetting computer code

One area you definitely don’t want a design or word processing program introducing curly quotes into your text is code, since machines are quite particular about which quotation marks are acceptable. In InDesign, temporarily turn this feature off while pasting in your code. Find it in Preferences under Type. The check box is marked Use Typographer’s Quotes. It’s the same in Illustrator.


Also don’t let your software turn what should be primes into curly quotes.

I’m 5' 9". → I’m 5’9”. Oops. Either use fonts that include primes, or make sure those italicized straight quotes don’t get converted.

That’s it. Anything I left out? Let me know! Thanks to Miller, FF Legato, and FF Hertz for illustrating the text, among others. Want more type tips?


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