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Smart Quotes are Killing the Apostrophe

How a software innovation doomed the inverted comma

Here are three snapshots from the fall of 2012: The Mitt Romney campaign began distributing this bumper sticker; the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team unveiled a new court design featuring the years of the team's past championships; and NBC debuted a new sports highlights show named after a shortened version of the word "highlights."

What do these things have in common? They each employ a backwards apostrophe. Or, to put it another way, they don't use apostrophes at all. Instead, each one improperly uses a single open-quote, which looks like a backwards apostrophes.

Confused? Here, this should help.

The humble apostrophe, of course, has been misused in various ways for generations, most commonly by people who mistakenly add it to a plural noun, or who mistake it's for its. But the single open-quote masquerading as a backwards apostrophe is a much more recent phenomenon. It's a product of the digital age, and it may be ushering in a new era of punctuation.

Here's the deal: Virtually any software that includes a typography function (whether for word processing, desktop publishing, graphic design, or whatever) now employs something called "smart quotes." The idea behind smart quotes is that the software recognizes when there's a blank space immediately before or after a quotation mark and adds the appropriate curvature to the mark, creating open-quotes and close-quotes. That way you end up with nicely curved quotation marks instead of straight or "neutered" marks (like the ones you see on most of this page).

This all works fine unless you have a word or term that begins with an apostrophe, like ’til or ’em (as in "Bring ’em on"). Since the keystroke for an apostrophe is the same as the one for a single quote mark, the software improperly interprets the space and the keystroke as the start of a quotation and imparts the wrong curvature to the mark. There's a way to override the smart quotes and impose a proper apostrophe in these situations (on a Mac, you type option-shift-close-bracket), but an increasing number of writers, editors, and designers either aren't bothering to do so, don't feel it's necessary, or don't even realize it's necessary. The result is a cascade of improperly oriented apostrophes on signs, on billboards, in TV commercials, in the names of businesses, and even on mainstream media web sites. Call it the apostrophe catastrophe.

Jonathan Hoefler, a leading typographer and type historian, thinks the apostrophe catastrophe could soon lead to some new typographic protocols. "We may be heading for a situation where we go away from smart quotes and go back to the straight or neuter quote mark, which would also serve as a straight apostrophe," he says. "That would entail a loss of subtlety that typographers would mourn, but it would also resolve the issue."

That's one possible solution. A more radical idea is simply to eliminate the apostrophe, an approach advocated rather entertainingly (and not altogether unconvincingly) by this web site.

But there's another possible outcome, one that may already be taking place under our noses: Thanks to a combination of inertia and indifference, the backwards apostrophe may become the new de facto standard. An informal poll of acquaintances reveals that many people believe the backwards mark is actually correct, and some of them are even creating apostrophe catastrophes in non-digital settings. "It could end up being the typographic version of 'ex-presso' or 'I could care less,' where the wrong version becomes at least as accepted, or even more so, than the correct version," says Hoefler, the typographer.

Will we eventually reach that tipping point? The hunch here is yes. Either way, the apostrophe catastrophe already qualifies as a cautionary tale of technology having unintended consequences, in this instance sending a rogue wave rippling through the worlds of typography, grammar, and language.

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