The PC is not a typewriter

Created on Wednesday, October 26, 2005.
Filed under , .

A lot has been written on the subject of bad typographic practice on the internet — indeed, the title of this article is taken from the book The PC is Not a Typewriter by Robin Williams (the geek, not the actor). But I feel that the more articles are written on typographically-correct punctuation, the more people will take notice and start to mend their habits.

In my previous article I talked about Em, En, Hyphen and Minus, but now I’d like to make clear the difference between ‘typewriter’ quotes and ‘curly’ quotes (including the apostrophe) and how they should be used.

A short history of quotes

Traditionally quotes and apostrophes were always curly because typesetters used to carve their letters out of lead, a very soft material. The softer the material, the more easily it takes curves, which is why curly quotes like “…” and ‘…’ were common.

Quotes lost their curliness when typewriters began to be mass-produced. The letter stamps of a typewriter were cut from more durable metals like alloys, tin and steel, and the hardness of these materials meant that it would be too difficult and expensive to cut curly quotes. The result was a cheap straightening of the quotes: the stock-straight ‘…’ and “…” characters that appear on every keyboard the length and breadth of the English-speaking world.

Some word processing programs like the newer incarnations of Microsoft Word and many freeware programs are beginning to convert typewriter quotes to curly quotes, though this feature is sometimes buggy and often lacking. The decline in good typographic practice is also largely due to the dearth of typographically aware font artists and users; for example, Most people don’t know what an Em dash is, and the few who do know would probably tell you that it was made by putting two hyphens side-by-side. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Similarly, very few people know that the quote characters on our keyboards aren’t actually quotes.

The quotes on our keyboards aren’t real quotes

In fact their visual appearance is closer to Primes; the characters you use to indicate feet, inches, minutes and seconds. 6'1" and 15°3" are all correct ways of using the quote characters on our keyboards. Think of keyboard quotes as Primes to minimise confusion.

Curly double-quotes are for speech and citations

Curly double-quotes are the best way to show that a piece of text is speech or a citation because they look different to typewriter quotes (no confusion between quotes and numbers), they have a comfortable width and prominence, they lead the eye in and out of the citation

“Welcome, travellers,” holloed the Innkeeper. “Here be some fine lodging.”
“Welcome, travellers,” holloed the Innkeeper. “Here be some fine lodging.”

and they give the piece a more professional and personal touch. Curly double-quotes are also used when you want to ‘ditto’ a particular section of text.

Curly single-quotes are for unusual words

Curly single-quotes are usd wherever you emphasise or introduce a new word by wrapping it in what these days is two single-primes or two apostrophes. For example:

‘Curly’ quotes look good.
‘Curly’ quotes look good.

They’re used for the same reasons double quotes are used: unique look, correct width and style.

There is no apostrophe on the keyboard

As I wrote already, there are only Primes on the keyboard. A Prime is a poor substitute for an apostrophe because it is too narrow to be immediately noticeable and because it just looks plain bad. Take for example:

Desi’s program, Writer’s Block, is being heavily pimped.
Desi’s program, Writer’s Block, is being heavily pimped.

I should also say here that an apostrope is not a single-quote. An apostrophe only slants one way, whereas a single-quote has an opening quote that slants right and an ending quote that slants left. Using apostrophes where you should be using single-quotes gives you something like

‘Curly’ quotes look good.

Change your ways!

Once you know the difference between curly and typewriter quotes and begin to like the style and distinction to your writing it brings, you’ll become very sensitive to pieces of writing that don’t use the right quote. And remember, school-kids: handing in typographically-correct type is a sure way to get extra marks and massive street cred from your English teacher. Props, y'all.

New: The PC is not a typewriter (this article).
New: The Punctuator: the tool to use when you want to combat bad typographic form!
Have you noticed anything different? The design of the site has been changed from using absolute measurements (pixels) to using relative measurements (ems). Now when you resize the text in your browser the design expands or contracts to avoid over-long lines or ‘squishied-up’ text. Some typographical changes have also been made, like the gradual adoption of curly quotes, real dashes and real three-dot leaders (ellipsis). The first lines of non-initial paragraphs are indented again, and hanging punctuation makes everything nice and in-line. I got outdented lists working, but it created too many problems. Lists will stay boxed in as normal.
Pages made typographically correct: twenty-six out of ninety-seven.
Oh Jebus! Sorry for the RSS feed not working — again. I used one character entity and the thing died. That’s what needs to be in Writer’s Block v3.3: autoreplacement of common character entities with numerical entities. And an Atom feed and maybe Blogrolling wouldn’t hurt.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2018.