On Correct Punctuation

Published on April 7, 2011 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

This and many other posts are also available as a pretty, well-behaved ebook: On Web Development.

Let’s speak the unspeakable: Correct punctuation, here referring to the use of the correct characters for quotation marks, apostrophes, dashes, and ellipses, will forever remain a dream online.

We know for some time that the use of correct characters is actually important in order to maintain the best possible degree of legibility as well as harmonious appearance of the content: Professional web design involves a great deal of typography.

We can observe though that while software is getting better in correcting user mistakes (spelling but also punctuation), users continue to use “"” for quotation marks, “'” for apostrophes, “-” for dashes, &c.

There are two reasons for this, leaving us not too surprised:

  1. Lack of awareness and experience: not everyone knows what characters to use when, and for an untrained eye, for example, a hyphen “-” may look like an en dash “–”.

  2. Lack of usability or functionality: there is no clear way to tell what to press in order to get to, say, an em dash on a Mac (German users may have to press alt + Shift + -) and apparently no way other than looking up a code and using Alt as well as the numeric key pad on Windows machines.

An idealist and amateur typographer I’ve always aimed to raise awareness for readability, legibility, and punctuation, including providing documentation like cheat sheets. It was about time then to realize that the two stated reasons make it unrealistic to hope for consistently correct punctuation, possibly even within an organization.

What makes me publish these notes is whether the fight to have a few characters be used correctly everywhere would still be worth it: I’m curious about your thoughts.

Was this useful or interesting? Share (toot) this post, or maybe treat me to a coffee. Thanks!

About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!

Comments (Closed)

  1. On April 7, 2011, 18:26 CEST, David said:

    What’s perplexing to me is the default characters on keyboards is feet and inches (’, “) instead of apostrophe and quotation. Or why not have another key on the keyboard for that purpose? Why not have an en dash/em dash key? They’re certainly common enough in our day to day writing; or rather should be IMO.

  2. On April 7, 2011, 21:08 CEST, Mathias Bynens said:

    […] for example, a minus “-” may look like an en dash […]

    Actually, that’s a hyphen-minus sign (U+002D). The correct minus sign is U+2212, which looks like this: −

    Speaking of correct punctuation… 😉

  3. On April 7, 2011, 21:26 CEST, Joe Clark said:

    Your second point obviates itself for touch-typists, who can in fact touch-type correct characters on Mac as easily as a capital letter. Someone who’s committed to correct character usage on Windows should enable the US-International keyboard layout, which is functionally equivalent to the US/CA/AU/NZ Mac layout.

  4. On April 7, 2011, 21:27 CEST, Neovov said:

    I agree with your first argument, BUT I think in a professionnal way speaking, this can’t be relevant. For god sake, it’s 2011 and there are people yelling they are professionnals and don’t even know (or worth: care) about punctuation or basic stuffs ?

    I totally agree with your second argument too. For instance, there is no [, ], {, or } on the french Mac keyboard, what a joke. This is even unacceptable comming from Apple with Steve Jobs’ typographic background.

    Well, Theses things make me gone mad, just like people making things that “just” works.

  5. On April 7, 2011, 21:31 CEST, James Johnson, Jr. said:

    I think that is is essential to provide the correct punctuation in code (ie rather than a quotation mark to use the q tag) so that readers in other languages can have a better translated document.

  6. On April 8, 2011, 3:13 CEST, Jens Oliver Meiert said:

    David, in a way the current setup may make sense for (and likely originates from) standardization purposes, as for software development. But then again, some setups already demonstrate that a more “natural” mapping is possible, if we once more think of German Mac keyboards where, for example, alt + . leads you to an ellipsis. I find that relatively straight-forward.

    Mathias, hyphen-minuses or minuses huh. (Corrected, thanks.)

    Nicolas, a definition thing, right—who’s expected to know about correct punctuation? Writers should, probably, but who else, and I’m semi-serious?

  7. On May 9, 2011, 17:16 CEST, Isiah said:

    It’s common enough in the advertising and design industry to use the ‘foot’ glyph for an apostrophe/single quotation mark simply because it’s a vertical stripe to all intents and purposes and looks visually cleaner particularly at small font sizes or online, than the proper apostrophe glyph does – even the BBC are prone to doing this.

    Ellipses are more than not often represented by three full points in a row rather than the correct glyph.

    Tut-tut. Incorrect yes and it does annoy me but it isn’t something I’m going to lose any sleep over.


  8. On May 10, 2011, 15:15 CEST, Gunnar Bittersmann said:

    @David: the “whores-for-all” ' U+0027 and " U+0022 are not the typographically correct characters for feet and inches, either. That would be ′ U+2032 and ″ U+2033.