English writing

Quotation marks usage and abusage

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There are a few different types of quotation marks, each with their own purpose and function. Many people don't know the difference, however, as a professional writer, it is your duty to know better than most people when it comes to your professional activities. Once you've seen the proper and appropriate use of quotation marks (and proper typography in general), you should not be able to view its improper use without wanting to correct it.

Double quote marks are primarily used in written English to indicate a direct quotation of speech. For example:

First she called Stop! Thief! Or I’ll shoot!

In the situation where a quotation contains another quotation, single quote marks are used around the contained quote so as to prevent confusion between the outer quote and the inner quote within the paragraph. For example:

Then she said “He turned and threatened me, yelling Get out of my way!’, so I shot him.”

Although not a rigid rule, use straight "double quotes" (Alt+0034) for online quotations—they are easier to read on-screen—and use straight 'single quotes' (Alt+0039) for "quotations 'within' quotations". See how the previous examples compare with the following:

First she called "Stop! Thief! Or I'll shoot!" 
Then she said "He turned and threatened me, yelling 'Get out of my way!', so I shot him."

Straight quotes are the remnants of the dual purpose quotation marks that were used on typewriters as opening and closing quotation marks. The angles of the quotes are visually equivalent to the angle of the font, so italised quotes slant forward. Notice also, that different font families display different looking quotes. For example:

Quotation mark Arial Courier New Microsoft Sans Serif Minion Times New Roman Verdana
(straight single quote)







Left single quote

Right single quote

(straight double quote)







Left double quote

Right double quote


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Online media

Potential problems can occur when documents containing properly displaying punctuation characters on the authors system, do not display as the author expected when viewed online on another's system. This commonly occurs when the font does not exist on the viewer's system, and Microsoft Windows "helps" by performing a font substitution for the missing font. Sometimes, the substituted font does not contain the same punctuation characters as the author's expected font and so the wrong character is displayed to the viewer. In other cases, no character is displayed at all where the punctuation character is expected, or is replaced by an open box symbol.

Most often, the selection of which font family is used, and which fonts are substituted, are beyond the control of the viewer, so careful selection of font is the responsibility of the author and should cater not only for appearance—as demonstrated in the table above—but with consideration of the expected audience and their viewing resources.

Unfortunately, selecting any particular font is no guarantee that the reader of your writing will have that font installed and available on their system—as fonts can be deleted—so when it comes to special punctuation characters like quotes, you need to be extra diligent, and eliminate the possibilities at a character level. This approach reduces the likelihood of displaying the wrong characters to the reader, and is independent of the font being used. The characters used are in the control of the author, and should be considered during the writing and delivery process.

xyz Note

The control of which characters are displayed online is only of concern when the document is being viewed online. Printing the document either to electronic PDF or to actual paper, negates this problem, as the character display is in the control of the author at the time of printing to these media. (Fonts can be embedded within PDFs, so will travel with the electronic document.) See Print media below.

Before we can control the remote display of punctuation characters, we need to know what these character values are, and where they should be used:

Character Display Unicode Decimal Keystroke Named Description and usage


#0022 #0034 " key or


Vertical double quote (neutral) for online left and right quotes;
or for a selection of text within a GUI dialog list or data entry field


#0027 #0039 ' key or


Vertical single quote (neutral) for online left and right quotes within quotes; or for highlighting a field label, or menu or list item within a GUI dialog window
grave accent


#0060 #0096 ` key or
  Spacing character for languages which use grave accents
acute accent


#00B4 #0180 Alt+0180


Spacing character for languages which use acute accents
left single quote

#2018 #8216 Alt+0145


Stylised left quote used for left of printed quotes within quotes
right single quote

#2019 #8217 Alt+0146


Stylised right quote used for right of printed quotes within quotes, and for printed apostrophes

#2032 #8242 Alt+8242


Used for prime numbers, minutes of degrees, or feet of length
double prime

#2033 #8243 Alt+8243


Used for double prime numbers, seconds of degrees, or inches of length
left double quote

#201C #8220 Alt+0147


Stylised left double quote used for left (opening) of printed quotes /td>
right double quote

#201D #8221 AAlt+0148


Stylised right double quote used for right (closing) of printed quotes td>

xyz Note

The examples in the table above use the Arial Unicode MS font. It is a full Unicode font, as it contains all of the characters, ideographs, and symbols defined in the Unicode 2.1 standard.


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Print media

For printed documentation, best practice for cross compatibility between Windows OS versions, international character sets, and SGML/XML/HTML is:
    - for apostrophe marks, use only &#8217 (Alt+0039) "''";
    - for left and right single quotation marks, only use &#8216 (Alt+0145) "‘"and &#8217 (Alt+0146) "’"; and
    - for left and right double quotation marks, only use &#8220 (Alt+0147) "“"; and &#8221 (Alt+0148) "”".
This approach complies with all international standards, and works everywhere. These are the official, standard, vendor-neutral encodings for these characters according to both Unicode and ISO-10646, so you don't need to worry about them not working in the future. They also work across XML, HTML, and SGML, simplifying data extraction—alternatives such as named character entity references do not easily work across XML and HTML (in particular).

In fact, avoid using specific Windows charsets if you are transmitting English documents. There are other charsets, such as Apples' many charsets, but they cause no end of problems.

Sticking with a simple ASCII-character-only file, and using decimal numeric character references for all non-ASCII characters, may take a little more space but it completely eliminates a vast number of problems.

Getting a system to correctly determine the character set while it's already trying to read the file is problematic, and there are a vast number of configuraton settings that can go wrong—as well as client systems that may not handle things correctly.

UTF-8 at least means the same thing everywhere, so you have some hope if you really want to use a non-ASCII character set and use UTF-8. But since not all documents use UTF-8, and other charsets (like the Windows charsets) interfere with them, sticking with the approach recommended here for character insertion has the best chance of success in HTML, SGML, and XML.


See Also

Jump across to separate topic Plain English Writing | Jump across to separate topic Technical Writing Jump across to separate topic Effective Communication | Jump across to separate topic FrameMaker Tricks | xyz Lotech Solutions' Tips, Tricks, and Procedures

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