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Buggy Punctuation?

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Punctuation can be a bit of a nightmare. Not just for self-important journalists but simply because its so inconsistent across languages. A point of particular difference are quotation marks. While only a small number of characters are used for them in Western languages - single or duplicate occurrences of ‘ and its 180° rotation, as well as single or duplicate occurrences of a guillemet › and its 180° rotation, the Wikipedia entry on the topic suggests that for most of the possible combinations of quotation marks there exists a language using them.

In German we use „AH HELLO“ as the standard double quotation marks. And consequently ‚AH HELLO‘ are used as standard single quotation marks. I shall limit the following discussion to the latter case.

Here, the opening quotation mark may look like a comma, but it is actually representing Unicode Codepoint U+201A with the nice and descriptive name single low-9 quotation mark which describes its form rather well. If you go through your fonts you will observe a bunch of different behaviours in this situation:

German single quotes and commas in Neudeutsch, Helvetica, Zapfino, Marker Felt, Verdana and Trajan.

This suggests that most of the time things will work just fine. But that it is really important for font creators or font system programmers to make sure that the comma glyph is used in most cases. In addition, results will likely look better if spacing is taken into account, but that is rarely done. A completely separate glyph seems to be even less common. It appears unnecessary for most ‘standard’ typefaces, but can be a nice touch if it is a small size variation or - for a peculiar typeface - a completely different design.

The Unicode lover feels compelled to add that apparently this character started off in Unicode 1.0 with the name low single comma quotation mark, which was less descriptive and suggested a relation to the comma which should probably be regarded as a happy coincidence happening in some typefaces.

But let us move on to the closing quote where the real problem lies. That quote will be more familiar to non-German readers as it is U+2018, a.k.a. left single quotation mark. Strangely its name suggests that it is a ‘left’ quotation mark, a problem which a description à la ‘single high-6 quotation mark’ similar to that of the quotation mark discussed above could have avoided. Yet, this is the character everybody uses for the German closing quotation mark (and there does not seem to be a viable alternative), so it seems that one has to assume that the Unicode name is potentially misleading or at least ambiguous about the glyphs purpose.

If one assumed that the glyph for U+2018 is only used for left quotation marks, then one might - although I will argue in a moment that one still should not - consider the glyphs provided by fonts like Tahoma or Verdana as correct:

English single quotes in Tahoma and Verdana

With these examples in place, I am tempted to say that these already look wrong. It may not be immediately visible in 12px, but it certainly is at this size: The glyphs of the English opening and closing quotes are usually related by (something close to) a 180° rotation. In these fonts, however, they are related by a reflection. Rotations and reflections are inherently different operations on the plane as reflections change orientation like a mirror does while rotations do not. More pictorially speaking: Usual English quotation marks have the shapes of the digits 6 and 9, which up to a rotation is the same shape. In particular the ‘pointy’ end of the opening quotation mark points upwards while that of the closing quotation mark points downwards. From that point of view, one should consider the quotation marks in Tahoma and Verdana to be incorrect (wrong, buggy).

Once you start typing in German, there is not even need for a discussion about rotation versus reflection. You simply have a look at the result and notice that it looks wrong. You may have already spotted this in the first set of examples above, but here it comes again:

German single quotes in Tahoma and Verdana

I guess I should turn this into a Mac OS X bug report as Apple ship these fonts with their system and according to Font Book they claim to support German text. But seeing that they are originally Microsoft’s and at least Verdana is one of the most frequently used fonts on the web because it is quite readable on screen and present on most computers, one wonders how many billions of wrong quotation marks are read every day because of this.

Many of those will not be noticeable because most writing on the web takes place in 12px font sizes, by writers who do not know about proper quotation marks to begin with and who are not using software that automatically does the conversion for them – even though such scripts are widely available to plug into most software systems. With the typical web reader probably matching those levels of competence, ‘everybody’ seems pretty much happy with that (the 1970s called and they want the abominable quality of their typewriter texts back…) Still, this seems like a sad state of affairs to me.

The problem could even be considered tragic as it effectively removes one (if not two) otherwise OK fonts from the already small list of web safe fonts if your site could contain proper quotation marks (rather than no quotation marks, ‘dumb’ quotation marks or guillemets). Because of this being an even more visible problem in German, it seems pretty much impossible to use these fonts on sites written in German (supposing that proper punctuation is to be used and people will not settle for ‘dumb’ or English quotation marks).

Of course my inner cynicist deems the chance of such a problem being solved to be pretty close to zero. This bug is so widely spread and quite likely you will find people who will object vocally to it being removed. Seeing that the typefaces are owned by Microsoft (a.k.a. the ‘let’s litter the world with Arial because we cannot afford licensing Helvetica’ company) and made by Monotype (a.k.a. the ‘let’s suck up to Microsoft’s money and create a shitty copy of Helvetica instead of telling them to just buy the proper one next door’ company) it doesn’t even seem likely they’ll give the slightest shit about such problems. And as usual Apple will feel that they didn’t create the problem (they just decided to license and ship it...), so hooray everything is perfect:

May 20, 2009, 0:18

Tagged as fonts, tahoma, typography, verdana.


Comment by Joe Clark: User icon

Flipped(-double)-9/(double-)9 quotation marks are merely a stylistic difference, as with $ and ¢ whose vertical bars do or do not extend through the body of the S and c or a ? that curls above the dot. Emigre is known to be fond of flipped-9 quotation marks (cf. Mrs Eaves).

Hence no, they are not an error or a bug.

May 22, 2009, 0:32

Comment by ssp: User icon

@Joe Clark:
I was tempted to think about them as stylistic peculiarities as well and that probably works all right while you stay in the safe world of English quotation marks.

But if these stylistic differences are implemented in a way that renders the font pretty much useless for some languages, I’m quick to call it a bug, particularly if the font claims to support those languages. More tolerant people might say it’s just ugly and a bad font, I suppose.

I don’t have a copy of Mrs Eaves et al myself (and the poor image quality of amazon’s / Google’s book search didn’t let me have a proper look at quotation marks in German books using it), so I can’t judge that first hand. While I’ve seen its flipped style quotation marks in English texts in print, strangely the samples shown at MyFonts contain quotes in the usual orientation.

I don’t know terribly much about this, but I heard that reasonably competent use of Open Type features could even cause a font to provide different glyphs for the quotation marks depending on the language they are used in, which could come handy in this situation.

May 22, 2009, 23:57

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