“Smart quotes” is a term often used to describe quotation marks that curve one way or the other depending on where they’re placed. They are also known as “educating quotes” and “curved quotes”. Specifically, when I use quotation marks as scare quotes around the words “smart quotes” (because I don’t think they’re very smart), the double-quote on the left should curve to the right, and the double-quote on the right should curve to the left, when using curved quotes.
This is the old typographical standard, and it’s perfectly reasonable when working with print media. When reading a novel, I expect to see curved quotes used, just as I expect to see curved apostrophes used. Technologies used to format text for print media should definitely include functionality that makes it easy to properly produce directional quotes.
The term “smart quotes” arose as a result of certain word processor programs using a function by that name to translate straight quotes to curved quotes. The idea is that the function is “smart” about curved quotation placement — and as the term became generally adopted to refer to curved quotes in colloquial use, the converse (straight quotes) has come, ironically, to be known by some as “dumb quotes”. The official term for the process of translating from straight quotes to curved quotes is “educating quotes”, however.
In the context of electronic communication where directional quotation marks are automatically selected by a function because the keyboard doesn’t supply directional quotes, I’ll refer to those directional quotes as “smart quotes”. The type of function used to produce smart quotes will be referred to as “educational quotes” or “educating quotes”, depending on context. Directional quotes in print media, on the other hand, are “directional quotes”, “book quotes”, or “curved quotes” when referring specifically to the curved variety.
With that in mind, smart quotes present a number of problems in electronic media:
- Certain character sets don’t support smart quotes at all — a real problem for ASCII compatibility across platforms.
- Certain character sets use different encodings for smart quotes, so that even if the platforms’ character sets support smart quotes, quotes may not show up properly across platforms.
- Educating quotes functions sometimes make errors — though this is a problem of diminishing frequency in common usage.
- Educating quotes functions are usually misapplied to code segments. WordPress, in fact, tends to apply its educating quotes function even to text inside
- It is pretty much impossible to create text search technology that automatically determines which way you want a quote to curve in (almost) all cases, so that text search capabilities are often broken in text with smart quotes in it. Try using the Ctrl-F text search in Firefox on a typical WordPress Weblog that uses smart quotes to find something with an apostrophe in it some time.
- Different languages actually use different types of directional quotes — not all use English-style curved quotes. For instance, some languages use smart quotes with the right-side double quote down at the comma level rather than up at the apostrophe level. Others use directional double-chevron quotes (guillemets). Basically everybody recognizes straight quotes, though, because of the de facto standard set by early computer use.
- Keyboard layouts assume straight quotes in many languages.
- Copying and pasting text from one electronic textual medium to another can often result in broken quote characters when smart quotes are used.
- As pointed out in a comment by medullaoblongata below, copy/paste problems with smart quotes can combine with code quote character issues to produce greater problems, as users who are not clearly aware of the problem can then end up entering smart quotes into an SQL database management client and causing errors. Beware of advocating for automatic translation of directional quotes to straight quotes, or other such hackery, with SQL database management clients, however — as this can serve to make input validation more tricky, and thus increase the likelihood of unintended SQL injection vulnerabilities.
If you’re using a keyboard layout with directional quotes of some sort, and you know for a fact that your intended readership will always enjoy full support for the kind of directional quotes you’re using, this obviously doesn’t apply to you. The point here is that the use of educational quote functions for electronic media — i.e., smart quotes — is harmful. It interferes with compatibility, portability, and readability, as well as correctness in many cases (e.g., code examples).
Only in closed circuit communications where full support for directional quotes is known, or where the generated text will be circulated in print form, should smart quotes be used. On the Internet, however, and in documents otherwise intended to be distributed publicly or to people whose computing environment is unknown (such as the Web or sending English-language Word documents not intended for print to a group of people on different platforms), smart quotes should be considered harmful.
I’m personally sick and tired of text searches failing because I don’t have a curved apostrophe symbol on my QWERTY keyboard. Stop it.
As Fabien indicated in comments below, the solution to this is pretty obvious. Specifically, when dealing with electronic documents, meant to be read on a computer, for public distribution or otherwise without clear and certain knowledge of what’s on the recipient’s computer, the burden of quote translation should be on the recipient’s system — and not on the system that generates the documents for distribution. This way, those who prefer smart quotes for aesthetic reasons (or other reasons — I don’t discriminate) can have their smart quotes, and those who don’t or for some reason are not able to view them properly will not be burdened with documents that contain characters they cannot view as intended or do not care to view. Everybody gets to be happy, that way. This solution would even allow for text searches where the search string includes “straight” quotes, if desired, even while the screen displays curved quotes.
So . . . for those of you distributing text documents for rendering to a screen, Smart Quotes Considered Harmful. Let the viewing software handle it. For those distributing in print form — as I already said above — go ahead and use directional quotes, because nobody’s going to be doing a select/cut/paste or browser-enabled text search on them anyway (at current technological levels, anyway).
Please feel free to share, if you know of other reasons smart quotes are harmful.