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What is the Difference Between Dumb Quotes and Smart (or Curly) Quotes?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Dumb quotes are punctuation marks that look the same whether they are opening or closing a quotation. They are straight quotation marks that resembled teardrops. Smart quotes that open a quotation or title appear as solid “66s", while closing ones look like “99s".

When the typewriter was still prevalent, straight quotes helped reduce the number of keys on the keyboard, and the computer keyboard followed suit. However, many prefer the look of smart quotes in printed text. Microsoft Word incorporated this look by using a built-in function to automatically replace dumb quotes sent from the keyboard. The software can determine whether the instance calls for opening or closing quotes.

Smart quotes interjected with software created problems for markup languages used on the World Wide Web. The ASCII character set that formed the foundation for cross-platform compatibility did not include smart quotes, so the editors used to build Web pages did not understand the symbols and would display improperly instead. The newer Unicode character set includes smart quote support, so this creates a problem less often. However, many older character sets that do not support smart quotes are still in use.

To solve the problem, extended expressions of smart quotes are sometimes used in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to make sure the marks translate correctly. This is also the case for Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). The long expressions are as follows:

Opening double smart quotes &ldquo
Closing double smart quotes &rdquo
Left single smart quote &lsquo
Right single smart quote &rsquo
Apostrophe smart quote &sbquo
Opening double smart quotes &#8220
Closing double smart quotes &#8221
Single opening smart quote &#8216
Single closing smart quote &#8217

Using long expressions will ensure that your smart quotes reproduce on a webpage in true form. They should also ensure cross-platform compatibility between applications or language editors. These marks are also referred to as book quotes. While many prefer the way they look, others believe these little punctuation marks are more trouble than they are worth and should be eliminated.

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Discussion Comments
By anon196514 — On Jul 14, 2011

Smart quotes are evil. I hate them. I use software to interpret webpages to me and it's always feeding me garbage like slash U 20 20, slash U2020, U2020 U2020 U2020, etc. They are extremely annoying. I wish people would turn them the hell off. I haven't found a way around this other than to use opera or replace every special character with search/replace. Extremely tedious and annoying.

By everetra — On Jun 30, 2011

@Azuza - Quotes are actually quite important, in the right context. The article talks about web pages, but I ran into a problem at work when doing desktop software development.

I built a scripting engine that basically parsed human readable scripts for some of the program’s advanced routines. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but the scripts used quotes.

Well, when I was modifying the parser, I accidentally had it filter out quotes that were based on a certain font. For example, I was writing using Times New Roman and used quotes with that font.

The problem is that the computer was expecting a standard ASCII quote, and to make a long story short, it messed up the routine.

It took me a long time to figure it out. Basically it wanted the standard Courier (teletype style) quote. So while these details can be picayune at times, they can make a big difference in software development.

By Azuza — On Jun 30, 2011

@Monika - Smart quotes seem like way too much trouble. Who cares if the quotation mark looks the same on both ends of the quote? Anyone who is reading is still going to know what it means!

By Monika — On Jun 30, 2011

You know, in all the years I've been using computers I've never once wondered how my quotation marks show up as opening and closing quotation marks even though I pressed the same key both times. I guess I never paid much attention to my quotation marks.

I think these "smart quotes" are will worth it though. There's just something satisfying about correct punctuation.

By anon6287 — On Dec 22, 2007

It's funny that you should have an article on this subject, since your articles show up on my version of Internet Explorer with just those issues that you talk about avoiding (the "garbage" symbols such as “it’s” for "it's"). In Opera, there is much less of this, but in Firefox, it's just as bad as in IE.

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