Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: March 24, 2021, 6:29 a.m. Humanist 34.297 - looking closely at smart quotes

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 297.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2021-03-23 22:31:28+00:00
        From: David Hoover <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.295: looking closely at smart quotes

Henry Schaffer's post scratched an old itch of mine. For me, as an
inhabitant (or at least a neighbor) of literary studies, the identity of
the apostrophe and the single (ASCII) quotation mark has really annoying
consequences in doing computational analysis, and the  problem Henry points
out of "smart" quotes exacerbates it further. Still worse, students working
on Mac's have a whole different set of potential difficulties from those
working on PC's because saving a text as "plain" text may not produce the
same results cross-platform. Add Unicode, shake, and get a stiff drink.

Because a surprising proportion of canonical writers use a good deal of
dialect, the apostrophe can be tedious to correct. My own "solution" is a
Python program that temporarily replaces various classes of single ASCII
quotes with different characters to make checking them easier. Anyone
interested can try it out at

David Hoover
            David L. Hoover, Professor of English, NYU
         212-998-8832       244 Greene Street, Room 409

"They had the Nos. of the rain bow and the Power of the air all
workit out with counting which is how they got boats in the air
and picters on the wind. Counting clevverness is what it wer."
-- Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

On Tue, Mar 23, 2021 at 3:18 AM Humanist <> wrote:

>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 295.
>         Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
>                                 Hosted by DH-Cologne
>                 Submit to:
>         Date: 2021-03-22 12:05:31+00:00
>         From: Henry Schaffer <>
>         Subject: Outsmarted by smart quotes
> The single quote/apostrophe ' and the double quote " are both perfectly
> good ascii characters. They apparently aren't good enough for many people
> including typographers, word processing software designers and some of the
> users, and maybe much of the literary world (which I don't inhabit.)
> For those wonderful people there apparently is a need for each character to
> come in two forms - an opening one and a closing one - which are slanted in
> appropriate directions so one can determine the start and ends of a quote
> without having to think. So we have now (not included in ascii) the ‘ and
> the ’ - the opening and closing single quotes (apostrophes) and similarly
> the opening and closing double quotes “ and ”. (And please don't confuse
> any of these with the backtick character ` (aka grave accent, found on the
> same key as the tilde.)
> The "smart" characters are *not* ascii and when one is working with
> computers sometimes this makes a huge difference - and that's what bit me!
> I was developing some code (a Perl script which handled strings and which
> involved both single and double quotes) and I typed it into a Google
> Document because it was part of some documentation I'm working on. Actually
> I copied part from an existing script, and then added some more. But
> helpful Google Docs has a default of using Smart Quotes - so every time I
> typed in a ' or a " it translated those into the "Smart" varieties, but
> what I copied stayed as ascii characters.
> OK - then I tested the code/script - and got the most confusing array of
> error messages! Looking closely at the code didn't help at first since '
> and ‘ look pretty much the same! Look closely and you'll see they are
> different - but it took me a while to see the difference and to
> correct those characters - and then the script worked!
> Oh well - I felt rather dumb after all that - but perhaps sharing this will
> help someone else.
> --henry
> P.S. I noticed that I wrote above "I'm working on." That brings to mind a
> Churchill quote
> P.P.S. In Google Docs Tools -> Preferences and one can unselect "Smart
> Quotes".

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