Ages ago, I worked at an agency with a typographer & proofer I’ll call Paul. I believe his title was, literally, ‘Senior Typographer & Copy Guru.’ He was easily 40 years older than me, and was, perhaps, the last of the “old guard” copy pros. As a graphic designer, I worked on a Mac (of course), but he did not. He worked with telephones, reading glasses, and pens. Lots and lots of pens. He did have a computer, but I’m not sure he ever turned it on.

At the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what Paul’s daily tasks consisted of, but I do know that he was always furious at me and the way I flowed copy. Always. I didn’t write copy at the time—it was delivered to me on disc by account executives or emailed from internal copywriters… I’d simply shoehorn it into place in the various layout projects I was assigned. Eventually, those projects would reach Paul’s inbox for proofing, and within seconds he’d scream at me from two cubicles down, “Get over here, this is all wrong.” After a verbal pasting in full view of whoever happened to be in the room, he’d send me back to my desk with my project—hopelessly marked up in cryptic shorthand.

Over the months that followed, and in an effort to avoid being embarrassingly singled out, I did my best to avoid the things that would set Paul off at 4:55 on a Friday afternoon. In relatively short order, I landed a new job and was only too happy to leave screaming Paul behind—convinced that his insane fascination with typography would plague me no more. Until…

Several years later, in the summer I was visiting the small town where I grew up. I got in line at the drive-thru at my bank, and as I patiently sat (arguable) waiting for the cars ahead of me to make their way through, there it was—a sign that clearly marked the clearance height of the drive-thru as 9’6”. I stared at it for several minutes. This sort of thing would never have bothered me before, but the trauma of those months spent with Paul suddenly surfaced… That sign is completely wrong!

You see, the bank’s clearance sign used quote marks, rather than prime marks, to denote feet and inches. Foot and inch marks are similar, but they’re not the same—and they never were. Quotes are curly, and hook in toward the word they surround. Prime marks (a.k.a. minute and second marks when applied to degrees) are straight, with a slight lean. Completely vertical marks are also acceptable.

Improper usage is rampant.

Once you learn the difference, it’s nearly impossible to ‘un-see’ the mistakes around you. Many will argue that they’re “the same thing,” or that “some fonts don’t differentiate between the two.” All the while I hear Paul in my ear (screaming) “You’re wrong! There is always a way!” Maybe Paul was right.

  • “That’s amazing” – Proper use of quotes
  • Steven’s house – Proper use of apostrophe
  • 9′6″ – Proper use of prime marks
  • Café – Proper use of acute accent—just for fun

By referencing the proper HTML codes or glyphs and special characters within design and layout programs (or keyboard command overrides), the correct representation is nearly always available. Paul used to think the word was lazy. He may have been right, but in an era of quick-fire texts and rapidly composed emails, the current state of confusion is probably warranted—still, that doesn’t make it right.

I recently worked with a web designer who explained that there was “no way” to create prime marks in HTML. I am not a web designer, but I had to poke around. He was wrong (′ for single; ″ for double). A close friend of mine said “you can’t create actual curly quotes in HTML though” (lsquo/’ &ldquo/&rdquo). Boom.

I’m nowhere near the copy guy that Paul was, but I do credit him (with the fake name of Paul, of course) for opening my eyes to the “correct” usage of commonly-screwed-up typography. Don’t get me started about what I learned regarding the usage of hyphens, en dashes and em dashes. Who knows…the next time you see a quote or a sign posting measurement in feet and inches, you may just notice that the marks being used are incorrect.