Debugging Quotation Marks

One of the most common punctuation problems writers face is with quotations marks. In Everything You Always Wondered About Punctuating Dialogue, posted last July, I covered the proper punctuation of dialogue, but there’s a little more to the matter.

On the computer you have a choice of the “old-fashioned” straight quotation marks (" ... " ) or “curly” (typographical) quotation marks (“ ... ”). Today nearly every word processing program is set by default to insert curly ones, and this can pose a problem. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the mark inserted at the beginning of a quotation has the “tail” up. The mark at the end has the “tail” down.

Our eye becomes so accustomed to seeing them the right way, we only notice when they are wrong, for example, “I said yes, “ she told me. Or, ” No, I do not want to go.” This fluke is caused by a stray space. Your program uses an opening mark if it’s preceded by space, and a closing one if it
s preceded by another character. Most often it’s the ending one that gets turned around because without noticing, you enter a space after the period before you insert the ”. To fix the problem, simply delete the incorrect mark, check the spacing, and retype the mark as it should be.

If you ever need to enter a closing mark after a space, as I have done four times in the above paragraphs, type the mark first, then back up and add the space afterward.

You have the same challenges with single quotation marks, also used as an apostrophe. It looks odd to see it‘s with the mark backward because someone caught the extra space, but not the upside down mark.

Although word processing programs use curly quotes by default, e-mail programs typically don’t. This will only matter if you paste passages from e-mails into a story that is mostly written in Word or OpenOffice and the e-mail has straight quotation marks or apostrophes. I faced that challenge in my book manuscript. I’d forgotten that some stories began life years earlier as e-mail, and they kept turning up through several edits. The simplest solution for more than one or two replacements is to do it with search and replace, searching for (space)" and replacing it with (space)“ and "(space) with ”(space). Of course you know to use the spacebar to enter the (space) ... .

In case you are wondering why those old marks persist, Shawn Hansen over at The Grammar Police would be delighted to explain that the straight marks are properly used with measurements. In fact, until the advent of the typewriter, typeset documents used curly quotation marks with words, and inch and foot marks with measurements. I daresay not even one percent of all readers would notice anything awry if you wrote that your father was 6’ 2”, but technically you would more properly express that as 6' 2".

And now you definitely know more than you ever wanted to know about those ubiquitous little curly gizmos.

Write on,

Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal

Countdown: 45 days until the release of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing on July 1. Stay tuned for ordering details.

1 comment :

Shawn Hansen said...


The grammar geek in you is showing: WRITE ON!

While I am sorry for the numerous editing problems of which you speak, it does my heart good to know I'm not the only one who keeps an eye open for those pesky inconsistencies.

I'm looking forward to your book!