A good proofreader knows how to use an apostrophe. The best ones know that’s only half the job. There’s ‘correct’ and then there’s ‘correct’. Call us superficial, but it really does matter.

A curly question

There are two types of apostrophes: right and wrong. I don’t mean an apostrophe missing from the word ‘they’re’, or one gatecrashing the plurals on a restaurant menu. ‘Straight’ apostrophes are wrong and ‘curly’ apostrophes (also known as directional, typographers’ or ‘smart’ apostrophes) are right, and that is that.

Back and forth

I want to say this wasn’t originally the case, but it was. In traditional handwritten typography and manual printing, apostrophes and quote marks were always curly. We learn this as children: quote marks look like a tiny 66 and 99 enclosing a section of speech, and an apostrophe acts like a little bracket, telling us where a letter has been omitted.

But once typewriters came onto the scene, the physical limitations of the hardware – the colliding alphabetical keys gave us today’s mixed-up QWERTY keyboard – really messed around with punctuation. At some point, someone decided that having four keys for ‘ ’ “ ” was a waste of precious keyboard space, so they ‘rationalised’ and replaced four keys with one: ‘. One ambidextrous, repeatable (‘ + ‘ = “ or ”) key. You can check out Butterick’s Practical Typography for the longer story.

The thing is, we don’t use typewriters anymore. Not unless we’re nonchalantly decorating a vintage clothing shop. Just as the backspace key on early word processors liberated us from the perils of liquid paper, modern computers have liberated the once-relegated curly apostrophe. For at least as long as I can remember, all mainstream word processors have autocorrected a straight apostrophe to a curly apostrophe, and quote marks likewise.

But as we well know, autocorrect isn’t perfect. Neither are proofreaders – we’re only human, sadly – but our eyes are keenly trained to spot a straight apostrophe like it’s a pretzel stick in a bowl of jellybeans. We’re here to pick up what the computer didn’t catch.

Straight from the source

The thing about punctuation is that, unless it’s properly formatted for the online world (where ’ translates visually as an apostrophe), the formatting can sometimes just … disappear, especially when text is copied and pasted. Nothing screams “I copied this definition/summary/factoid directly from Wikipedia” like a handful of straight apostrophes and quote marks in an otherwise nicely formatted document. It just doesn’t look good, on many levels.

The prime direction

For the record, primes ′ and double primes ″ are another – perfectly valid – thing altogether. They’re angled inward like a smart apostrophe or closing quote mark, but they’re not curved. And in countries like Australia that use metric measurements, they’re also quite rare, since they indicate length (in feet and inches rather than centimetres), latitude and longitude (in degrees, minutes and seconds), and not much else.

These days, most basketball players are taller than 7′ 1″.

The treasure is buried at 42° 34′ 19″ N, 23° 14′ 47″ W.

And note there is no such thing as an ‘opening’ prime – they always cut in from top right to bottom left.

Bonus round

In most Australian corporate communications it’s standard practice to emphasise a specific word or phrase with single quote marks, and to save those double quote marks for direct speech or excerpts from another document.

This is known as ‘market disruption’.

“It’s not about just keeping up, it’s about keeping our competitors on their toes,” he said.

And yes, they’re always ‘smart’.

Olivia McDowell is a Senior Editor in our New York office. Contact her here.

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