How to avoid a quotastrophe


[Ilene Strizver] When is a quotation mark not a quotation mark, typographically speaking? When it is of the “dumb” variety. True “typographer’s” quotes — as differentiated from the ol’ typewriter kind — are used to set off a word, title or quotation, and they are a pair, with an opening and a closing version. Typographer’s quotes are often referred to as “smart” or “curly” quotes (although they are not always curly, as shown in the amusing “eggs”-ample below).

Two pairs of smart quotation marks grace the cover of The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

Quotation marks of the smart variety are designed to relate to the characteristics of the typeface they belong to. This is not the case with the symbol found on a typewriter, where, due to the space considerations of the keyboard, it had to serve a dual purpose: that of both opening and closing quotes, as well as the inch mark. This symbol was not able to be design-sensitive to the font as true typographer’s quotes are, and looked more like a generic inch mark.

In the digital age, true quotation marks are the only accepted punctuation in professional typography for this usage. Note that the apostrophe, a close cousin of the quotation mark, is actually the same exact character as a single closing quote and should also be of the smart variety.

The endpapers of The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks alternate rows of opening and closing quotation marks.

Primes, on the other hand, are used to indicate inches (double mark) and feet (single mark). They are either slightly slanted (the technically correct version) or else straight marks, which are often slightly tapered. There is just one version of each, rather than the opening and closing versions of smart quotes.

To avoid committing a “typographic misdemeanor,” you can set the preferences in most word processing programs to automatically convert default “dumb” quotes to smart ones. In today’s design programs, smart quote substitution is usually set as the default. But note that no software is smart enough to know when inch or foot marks are required rather than smart quotes, so be sure to manually proof your copy and correct or convert back to primes as necessary.

The dramatic closing quotation mark conveys quite smartly that this book is about radio reporting and interviews. The back cover (not shown) features the opening quotation mark.

A different instance in which a quote is not truly a quote — that is, not used for its intended grammatical purpose — is when it is used as a more decorative, often exaggerated design element. Smart quotes can vary tremendously from typeface to typeface, and can be very dramatic, graphic and even sensuous. Our association with this symbol is so strong that it cues us that someone is speaking.

The designer of “Susie” was inspired to put the name in voluptuous quotation marks, perhaps to suggest the ripeness of the limes within.

This widely used — and often unnecessarily so — punctuation mark offers plenty of opportunities for creativity. But keep ’em (note the apostrophe, which is not a single opening quote) smart! Here are a few of my favorite smart quotes, from a typographic point of view.

Photography: Book photos courtesy of Chronicle Books; “Susie” by Donna Mugavero.

Type notes: For the lead image, Strizver selected P22 Typewriter, a digital interpretation of a typewriter font — using proper smart quotes, of course. In the final image, the white quotes are in Variex.

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator. She specializes in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical, conducting her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

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Comments (9)

  1. Posted by Paperlover on 12.13.10 at 9:55 am

    Such great examples. Thanks!

  2. Posted by Lee Moody on 12.13.10 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks “Ilene”…who could resist ! That was a fun read & I love the old graphics

  3. Posted by Trina on 12.16.10 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the article. It brings to mind a question I have about the quotation marks in the Calibri font family. Whenever I use this font, my editor asks me to use a different font for the quotation marks so that they will be curly since Calibri marks are not curly. Did I understand correctly in your article that not all smart variety quotation marks are curly?

  4. Posted by Ilene Strizver on 12.16.10 at 3:58 pm

    Yes, Trina, this is true — not all smart quotes are of the curly variety. For a more detailed (and illustrated) explanation check out this article I wrote in response to the very same question:


  5. Posted by Trina on 12.16.10 at 4:24 pm


    Thank you so much for posting the link. It answers my question perfectly!


  6. Posted by Bill Eger on 12.17.10 at 12:53 am

    It’s clear that I should know what the stroke on many keyboards — up there to the left on my MacBook Pro (`) and under the tilde (~) — is really for. If the plain answer is embarrassing to me it’s because I’m 75 and can’t remember these critical things. Do try, however.

    I think apostrophes go the other direction. In Hawai`i it is used — as in the name of our state there — as an `okina but that should be a curly opening single quote.

  7. Posted by Ilene Strizver on 12.17.10 at 8:56 am

    Bill, the character you are referring to is the grave accent, which does indeed go in the other direction. It is used in French, Italian, and some other languages, including in Hawaiian, as you mention.ed You can read more about it here http:://

  8. Posted by Cupake on 08.27.13 at 12:47 pm

    Why are the Obelisk opening and closing quotation marks identical top and bottom, unlike the others?

  9. Posted by Graceland on 03.2.14 at 5:08 am

    I think you’ve just captured the answer pelrtcefy

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