Editing: The Problem with Smart Quotes

Issues arise when smart quotes turn out to be not quite so clever, after all.

Computers have come a long way since their humble beginnings in the twentieth century, but despite their ubiquitous nature, not all are created equal. Some programs don’t work at all in certain systems, and others will simply mess up any specialized formatting. When you’re a proofreader or copyeditor, having a piece of content look aesthetically good is extremely important (and usually part of the job), and it needs to stay that way no matter how many times the file is moved around or opened.

“Smart quotes” are also known as “curly quotes”, and you just saw a couple sets right now. WordPress automatically changes “straight quotes” into curved ones. The history of quotation marks is long and convoluted, and I won’t bore anyone with the details. Long story short, it’s preferable to use curly quotes, but not all programs support their use, especially when copy and pasting text from one place to another.

“I don't know whether the weather will be fine.”

"I believe you do know whether the weather will be fine."


What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, imaginary friend, if you have text with curly quotes (say, in Microsoft Word), and you copy and paste it into a CMS like Drupal, it might end up looking like this:

“Bees are amazingly friendly creatures.”

Or the quotation marks will disappear entirely.

Bob looked around.  But it was here just a minute ago!  he said.

Certain CMSes cannot understand the coding of the curly quotes, so it will reduce them to base HTML or fail to display them at all. This is a serious issue for proofers, as our job is to make the content look like a polished, final product. It means that the client themselves will have to go in and add or change all the quotation marks. Not being able to handle simple tech fixes is a major drawback for desk-based freelancers.

Fortunately, there’s a fix for all this. If you work directly in a CMS and don’t have to upload or move text anywhere else, you probably don’t need to worry about it. But if you edit with an offline program or something similar, and must copy and paste the content someplace else, then you should change all the smart quotes to straight ones.

OpenOffice already has straight quotes as the default, as do other word processors, but Microsoft Office prefers the curly ones. To stop the program from automatically changing all physically typed straight quotes to smart quotes, you need to go into Options and change the settings. Here is a guide on how to do that for Word. (You’ll have to do it for each of the Office programs: Excel, PowerPoint, etc.) Also, be sure to fix the “autoformat as you type” settings in order to completely stop the process.

However, that’s only useful if you’re doing all the typing. If you already have a piece of content filled with potential format breakers, you’ll have to fix them all manually. Fortunately, there is a simple, straightforward method to do so using Find and Replace.

First, highlight the offensive curly quotation mark –

sq 1

Press Ctrl+F, and select “Replace” from the dropdown menu –

sq 3

Then in the Replace tab, select the second box (the first one should already be filled in with the highlighted curly quote), and type in a normal quotation mark from your keyboard –

sq 4

Then select “Replace All”, and all the smart quotes should now be changed to straight ones –

sq 5

You should do the same thing with apostrophes, which also have smart and straight versions.

sq 6

This is actually probably more important than quotation marks, as apostrophes are used far more often. Remember, you want your content to look like this:

My, it's hot in here!

Not like this:

I’m roasted!

Again, highlight the problematic punctuation, and use Find and Replace to switch out the smarts for the straights.

Even if you’re not sure what type of CMS or program that your client uses, it’s usually best to just convert all the quotation marks anyway. It only takes a few seconds, and is guaranteed to not break the formatting. And if you’ve fixed the smart quotes automation on Microsoft Word, that will also solve any issues with single apostrophes indicating omission (“I’ve got ’em!”), latitude (49° 53′ 08″), etc. Such usage requires either a straight apostrophe or a leading one.

This all may sound a bit confusing, and in all likelihood, it probably won’t be something you have to worry about. But it is a simple thing to watch out for, and just as easy to fix. A good editor needs to be diligent and wary of anything that might undo all the hard work they put into perfecting a piece of content.


Header image created at ReciteThis.com

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