Ugly Web Typography

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of articles on the Web using an unusual format when putting things in quotation marks. The quotation opens with a pair of a grave accents (like this: “) and closes with a pair of apostrophes (like this: ”). Below is an example from, with the quotation marks put in red (my modification). (Full article here, if you’re interested.)

odd quotation marks

I only find this on Web sites for large publications, such as Bloomberg. Smaller publications and blogs use the expected standard quotation marks.

But why? Why would these publications use this more cumbersome punctuation over regular quotation marks?

I’m speculating, but I suspect is has something to do with needing to clearly define the beginning and end of a quotation — not for the sake of the reader, but for some other, more technical reason.

In printed typography, the beginning and end of quotations are marked with curly quotes (also known as smart quotes). Curly quotes curl towards the text “like this”. However, Web browsers don’t easily handle curly quotes. For example, if you cut and paste directly from MS Word into a Web form or editor, it will either convert curly quotes (or apostrophes) into straight quotes "like this", or it will generate a character identification error like this .

Or it might work correctly. It depends on several factors, such as the form or editor being used, the Web browser being used, and the declarations at the beginning of the HTML file. You can understand why large publications would want to go around this issue by creating a new standard.

But again, why? Why do they need to have their quotations machine-understandable? Or am I going in a completely wrong direction with this inquiry?

I wonder about this because typography makes up a small but significant part of my life — or at least my work — and because I am naturally curious about these things. This accent-and-apostrphe  solution probably works, but it is ugly to the eye. So what pressing behind-the-scenes technical need do these publishers have that trumps typography?

3 thoughts on “Ugly Web Typography

  1. My first assumption is always error — or, more precisely, inattention. Could autopilot be blamed? I understand the distaste for the uniform vertical hash marks, and I went through a painful process of converting to smart quotes and then reversing that after learning that not all browsers “saw” them. But I don’t see why someone would choose an alternative that looks even worse.

  2. It’s definitely not an error — I see this in major newspapers and journals, used very consistently.

  3. It’s actually, as you suspected, because of bad interaction between proper, web-standard character-set declarations and old, funky browsers’ interpretation of what that character set refers to. Instead of going to proper Unicode 8-bit encodings, they sometimes default to old-school ISO which maps its non-alphanumeric characters differently. So to avoid people complaining, many sites automatically strip out “real” HTML curly quotes and replace them with the dreaded ‘grave’ and ‘foot’ marks. (On the other hand, most blog software actually does the reverse — it strips out typewriter-y straight quotes and makes them proper curly quotes.)

    Peter Sheerin has an article about Web type errors and how to fix them (good general rules for print, too) here at A List Apart. Scroll down a bit and you’ll see the part that references newspaper sites that do this.

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