Saturday, August 05, 2006

The death of the apostrophe

Apostrophe a GoGo (or) Death of the Apostrophe
The Apostrophic Menace

Did you see the original Stars Wars? Did you see the wrong apostrophe in the opening text that receded, in glorious faux perspective, into the distance? It was subtle, and if you did, you can quit reading and go order some type from Altered Ego Fonts. Oh, everything was spelled correctly (I’m certain they proofed that at least) but they became lazy in the punctuation. Need more clues? Think hard, you had to have seen it. Most people are so used to seeing them they overlook them.

What, do you ask, is the “wrong apostrophe?” It’s like the wrong trousers, such as what Wallace was stuck with when he rented a room to a penguin. Missed that one too? Well, go to the video store tonight, and pay attention here now (especially PC users — it’s easier to do this correctly on a Mac). It’s what appears when you type the apostrophe key next to the return key on your keyboard. You weren’t expecting a curly apostrophe (or typographer’s apostrophe) to come out automatically were you? If you’re not careful, or your preferences aren’t set correctly in your layout / drawing/ word processing program of choice, you will see the ASCII apostrophe appear on your screen, and eventually make its way to your final piece.

George Lucas spent over $120 million dollars to create Star Wars: Episode I, yet failed to hire a type director. Even watching VH1, I see a glaring example of inattentiveness to a basic typographic glyph that appears everywhere, namely the apostrophe. You can’t make a contraction, indicate the possessive, or even write rock ’n’ roll without the apostrophe.

Yes, it’s a pet peeve. I’ve seen the ASCII apostrophe on signage in the world-renowned Rainbow Baby and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio; in magazine ads in Graphic Design: USA and Publish, and in TV commercials more times than I can count (Especially Daimler-Chrysler commercials). It’s kind of a game now, to find these incorrectly typeset apostrophes everywhere I go. Even online, typing typographer’s quotes or apostrophe requires HTML code.

Shall I succumb to the irrelevant?

By now you’re thinking that I ought to get a life, but bear with me (We type designers start from the details up). You can make your typography more beautiful (and professional) in the process. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it makes the world a better place. Really. I suspect there are a lot of people that are secretly annoyed by this, but are too embarrassed to admit it.

You don’t have to watch television for very long, or read more than one magazine, without seeing an apostrophe standing rigid in some possessive phrase or contraction.

I suspect much of the problem is due to the use of PCs in typesetting and layout, and the difficulty of typing anything other than what appears in the first two levels of the keyboard. PCs seem to be used in broadcast media, you’ll see a lot of the ASCII apostrophes on television.

Apostrophes from STF Veritas and Trebuchet; Serif apostrophes from AEF Veritas and Adobe Garamond; sans serif apostrophes from AEF Chevron and Azkidenz.


So what to do about it? The obvious solution is to buy a Macintosh computer (I am not kidding). You can achieve this degree of typographic sophistication on either platform. First, study this picture carefully: An ASCII apostrophe bears some resemblance to a tent stake, and in most cases and is rigidly vertical. The proper apostrophe will be tapered and set at a slight angle in a sans serif font, and resemble a period with an angled or curling tail descending from the bottom in a serif font. Type a comma, and you’ll more than likely be looking at something similar to what the apostrophe should look like.

Each font has two apostrophes in character slots (at least the professional fonts do, amateur fonts, the kind you download for free from the one-million-and-one-free-font sites, may be missing one, or both!) There is the ASCII apostrophe, which is set by typing the apostrophe key, and what has become known as the curly apostrophe, or smart quotes. Preferably it is called the “typographer’s apostrophe.” On the Mac, it’s set by typing the option-shift-right bracket key. In Windows, it’s set by typing alt+0146 (on my PC it doesn’t appear until I release the ALT key).

The major drawing and illustration applications, and MS Word offer simple preference settings to ensure that your apostrophe is set correctly. In InDesign, go to Preferences: Type: “Use Typographer’s Quotes.” In Freehand, go to File: Preferences: Text, and there is a check box that allows you to not only use “Curly Quotes,” but to select your preferences for US or European or other country-specific settings. Microsoft Word has a setting under Tools: AutoCorrect: Autoformat. In Quark Xpress you can set the preference for “Smart Quotes.”

It’s a little thing, but simple to correct. After all, for a typographer, the difference between typesetting and fine typography is in the details.

Stand firm. Be free. Make the world a more beautiful place through typography. And above all else, don’t be afraid to admit that that you’re bothered by ASCII apostrophes. The future of typography is in your hands. . .

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Disclaimer: Due to the finicky nature of browsers and HTML editors, and ASCII apostrophes in this article are unintended and we will correct them if found!


Thanks to the readers who corrected my grammatical mistakes, which involved of course the apostrophe in the wrong place, rather than the wrong apostrophe.

11 comments:

India said...

It's been a long time since I had to use Windows (Apple be praised!), but I seem to recall that that alt-0146 shortcut works only on the numeric keypad, not on the number keys across the top of the keyboard.

Gerard 't Hooft said...

Dear BSCO.
I am desparate. There is a problem with the apostrophs that's worse than the one you described. It's the fact that all texts coming from Microsoft Word or similar programs, contain the apostroph upside down. These `smart' programs think that any apostroph that's not at the end of a word must be the beginning of a quotation, so, whether you like it or not, the program replaces ' by ` (or the corresponding curly symbols, which are not on my keyboard). So, when you write: that's, this is turned into that`s. I went to a conference announced on giant posters as: Physics `99, where surely Physics '99 was meant.
Now, for my person, this is particularly insulting because now everyone spells my name wrong. It is not hard to overrule the program, but you have to work at it, and as soon as you turn your back, the program undoes your correction. Microsoft does not answer my complaint. What can we do to persuade Microsoft to remove this bug from their software?
Gerard 't Hooft, Utrecht, the Netherlands.

C Tobias said...

A great post, and one of my biggest pet peaves. I get so mad when I'm watching any of the cable news shows and I see so many inch marks in place of apostrophes!

gridrunner said...

It’s not quite as annoying as total misplacement (or lack of use altogether for that matter) of the apostrophe, but yes it’s important!

Keith said...

The alt-code-0146 is the wrong code to use for the same reason the HTML decimal entity 0146 is wrong: it's an invalid Unicode character. The reason it (and the glyphs around it) work on Windows is because it's in the Windows character set codepage. You can get to a lot of Unicode code points with the alt-keystroke method, but it's still quite unfortunately Windows-centric. Windows Character Map even has these glyphs at those Unicode code points. It's wrong.

Instead, you want Unicode code point decimal 8217. However, even on Vista the alt-keystroke 8217 is broken. A nice free little Windows utility called the “Quick Unicode Input Tool” will allow you to use the alt-keystroke method to input decimal Unicode code points. I've just installed it and it works fine, transparently inserting the correct Unicode code point with the traditional alt-keystroke method.

One can also download from Microsoft their “Keyboard Layout Creator”, which allows one to create a custom keyboard layout that uses the Unicode characters one prefers.

episkopos said...

Thank you for putting this in writing. Careless typography is the blight of “Desktop Publishing.”

I could not help but notice that your article ended with another common typographical faux pas. You substituted a string of periods (periods and spaces, to be precise) in the place of an ellipsis.

This: “. . .” is not the same as this: “…”

Of course, this again highlights the superiority of the Macintosh as a typesetting platform. To type an ellipsis on a Mac, simply press “Option+semicolon.”

Thanks again for the post. It reassures me that I am not as insane as my wife insists me to be!

Anonymous said...

The "Typographer's quotes" option on InDesign CS3 is useless, it just makes everything worse. When it's activated, any text you place (or type, for that matter) will have all it's apostrophes replaced by closed angle quotes. It becomes impossible to write "I'm" or "don't". Even when you pick the apostrophe from the glyphs panel or type the UTF code directly, it gets replaced. Conversely, if "Use typographer's quotes" is deactivated you can at least have both quotes and apostrophes in a text, even if you have to insert the typographer's quotes manually.

Apple + Adobe. It's like a hell within a hell.

Anonymous said...

Scratch that last bit - you CAN type apostrophes directly when typographer's quotes are activated. But as in most English texts apostrophes are much more common than quotes, it's not really worth the effort.

indirect said...

When would it be appropriate to use the ASCII apostrophe?

Unknown said...

I stumbled on your post while looking for an alternative to the use of the single quote character as an apostrophe in database string fields. For those who might be interested, http://http://snowball.tartarus.org/texts/apostrophe.html provides some insight into WHY we have to jump through hoops to get a real apostrophe although it doesn't address your topic directly.

On a side note, I thought it coincidental to find a comment submitted by someone sharing the same name as an eminent physicist. To my surprise the comment was submitted by the physicist himself, Gerard 't Hooft. Does that qualify as a brush with greatness? :)

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