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?