Be Smart. Don't Use Dumb Quote Marks

You're using quotation marks wrong, and a new website wants you to stop.

If you ever see a typography lover, smeared with blood, bellowing while holding a steaming human heart above his head, the point of contention was very probably the use of smart quotes versus dumb quotes. Now a fantastic new site—part Internet scold, part sympathetic cheat sheet—is trying to avert such macabre scenes.

Created by Brooklyn graphic designer Jason Santa Maria, Smart Quotes for Smart People was created as a sort of public message for National Punctuation Day to get people to start looking over the kind of quotation marks they’re using online.

Before we explain the difference between smart quotes and dumb quotes, let’s cop to something. Here at Co.Design, we’re not exactly fastidious for using typographically correct quotation marks, or apostrophes for that matter. Which, if you think about it, is kind of the point. Even a website run by a bunch of hoity-toity design pedants, the kind of guys who can effortlessly rattle off a thousand rapturous words describing the Fibonacci sequence of some typographic curlicue ... even we aren’t using the right quotes.

So what is a smart quote? Essentially, they are quotes that are (depending on the font) either curly or diagonal on the end. "Smart quotes" instead of "dumb quotes." That goes for single quotes, too. ‘This’ is smart while ’this’ is dumb. If you think about it, almost everyone is aware that quotation marks are not, in fact, vertical, but curled or diagonal. It’s how we write quotation marks on paper. So why do we type quotation marks on our keyboard this way?

Blame the advent of the typewriter. As Santa Maria rightly points out, "Dumb quotes, or straight quotes, are a vestigial constraint from typewriters when using one key for two different marks helped save space on a keyboard. Unfortunately, many improper marks make their way onto websites because of dumb defaults in applications and CMSs. If you write a mixture of text and HTML code (as I am doing here), it quickly becomes very difficult to keep your quotation marks straight: inserting an HTML link, for example, to this delightful video of a dinosaur on rollerskates faceplanting requires me to use dumb quotes, while telling you that the title of the video is "Raptor Mascot Eats It" requires the other variety. (It’s worth noting that this is another advantage of Markdown over HTML for web writers, since it doesn’t use quotes for syntax.)

Luckily, if you’re on a modern computer, there are shortcuts you can use to avoid the wrong quote, which is, when all is said and done, the point of Smart Quotes for Smart People. On the Mac, this is relatively easy; it's exactly the kind of thing that would have gotten Steve Jobs’s knickers up. Simply hold down the Option key and press [ to open a smart quote and Option + Shift and [ to close it. Unfortunately, on Windows, it requires a sequence of five keys to appear smarter with your quotes.

What’s the big deal? Why bother with using smart quotes when everyone knows what a so-called dumb quote is supposed to mean? Well, let’s put it this way. Imagine you were sarcastically quoting someone at a bar, and instead of curling your fingers, you just started waving a Nixon-esque double peace sign around your head for emphasis. People would think your brain was broken, right? Well, that’s the way typography lovers look at you every day on the web. Let’s do guys like Jason Santa Maria a favor and try to be lesser doofuses about our quotes from now on, okay?

[Images: via Smart Quotes for Smart People and Shutterstock]

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  • Marc Erickson

    "Smart" quotes are frequently garbled by email and word processing programs. That's the reason NOT to use them.

  • Christopher Luther

    Add no value to your work and look pretentious for the low, low price of breaking search functions and slowing down your typing speed. What a deal!

  • richard

    You’re not even using “smart” apostrophes in the headlines of this page !!! Why not practice what you preach?

  • Jean Rafenski Reynolds

    "Dumb quotes" often appear in something I'm writing when I've copied-and-pasted from the Web. There's an easy way to fix them. First, go into Options in Word and make sure you've indicated that you want smart quotes in all your documents. Then use Find and Replace (type a quotation mark into the Find box, type a quotation mark into the Replace box, and click Replace All). Presto - smart quotes everywhere, and they'll all be formatted correctly.

  • Rick Smith

    Wow--somebody needs to "get a life!" I think I'd prefer to spend my time and effort worrying about something "really" important like the color of rocks used in road construction. And yes, check the grammar book on your use of "wrong". Oh man, "dumb" quotes again. The world will end soon :)

  • sswimmer

    Ironically your in-text examples showing the difference are indistinguishable in the font you're using rendered on my browser – which is Chrome.  As this case illustrates, it may be of more value to use correct punctuation in headlines and pull-quotes rather than body text. This is especially when going through a CMS or Blog template that uses a font-set that's not designed to clearly delineate smart quotes.  

  • Evan Jacobs

    I prefer dumb quotes, as a programmer. They're much easier to deal with on the back-end.


    I'm far more concerned by your suggestion that I might be 'using quotation marks wrong'. Impossible. I might be 'using quotation marks wrongLY'. 'Use' is a verb, so it requires an adverb, not an adjective.

  • Sarah Furlotte

    I hate smart marks. I find their appearance aesthetically unpleasing in an electronically typed document. 

  • Doug Broad

    Fine for images.  Lousy for web text.  Notice that every distinctive smart quote on this page is implemented as an image.  They just aren't visible unless the font size exceeds 12px.  This page has a css with 275 font-size declarations.  That should tell you somthing's wrong.

  • drklassen

    OSX is full of the option+key combos for things like accented characters, en-dashes, em-dashes, and even a few Greek characters.  Doing the alt+#### thing on Windows is a total pain.  And I tend to only use it for en-dashes and em-dashes and degree symbols.  I use quotes too much to make it worth my while slowing down.

  • proofist

    Here are a couple extra tidbits. 1. You can tell if your quotes and apostrophes are "smart" if they have the same shape as a comma in that font. (If your commas are beautifully shaped to match the font, why should your single and double quotes look like odd pieces of lumber stuck into the copy?) 2. The "dumb" quotes and apostrophes are actually still the correct symbol forms to indicate inches and feet. 3. In response to a couple comments below, yes, on a Mac, the formatting is automatic but it's an instantaneous second step after you type the character; if you perform one undo in Word and other applications, it will undo the smart, leaving the dumb.

  • Mitranim

    How awful. I absolutely despise people pushing typographic quotes and apostrophes onto computers. You know why? Because it makes it several times harder to parse text. Computers see them as different symbols. If you're looking for, let's say, R'lyeh in text, and you Ctrl+F for "R'lyeh" (because you have the usual apostrophe on your keyboard) you may miss it because some smartass used a typographic apostrophe instead. And you wouldn't even know that you missed it. I HATE that.

  • JPool

    I agree with your message, but fear that it might be undercut by the fact that in the body text, at least on my Chrome screen, your single smart and dumb quotation marks are rendered exactly the same and your double smart quotes show up as slanty but unsexed, so not particularly smart in terms of distinguishing between opening and closing quotation marks. I should also note that the quotation beginning in the second sentence of paragraph five is never closed. So, irony.

  • Jorge

    Speaking as a typographer, I would point out that the characters (now "glyphs") were referred to as "sexed quotes" to distinguish them from "typewriter quotes". The individual characters were called "open quote", "close quote", and "apostrophe".

    "Smart quotes" is the algorithm that allows a word-processing program to sex the quotes on the fly. 

  • Carol Saller

    It's easy to set the default in MS Word on a PC to "smart quotes" so they'll automatically appear every time you type quote marks. Word Options > Proofing > Autocorrect options > Autoformat.