Apostrophe or Prime?

I’m the first to admit that this is a super picky typography issue, but I’d be negligent if I didn’t point it out. I saw the following photo on the cover of the Business section of today Star and Tribune. Can you spot the typography error?

Delta sign: Prime or apostrophe

Can you spot the typography error?

If you said, “huh?” you wouldn’t be alone. Look at the apostrophe: see how it goes straight up and down instead of angling in toward the letters? That’s because it’s a prime symbol.

Still saying “huh”? Let me explain it this way: a prime symbol is the one that’s used to abbreviate foot. There’s a separate typographic symbol for an apostrophe, this one curves toward the previous letter. Here’s an example:

An example of primes and quotation symbols

Correct usage of primes and quotations

In print, the correct symbol can be inserted using a glyphs palette or key command. Many design programs also have a feature called “Smart Quotes,” that converts the default prime and double prime symbols to apostrophes and quotes.

For the web, typographic manipulation is less accessible. That’s why this very blog entry is polluted with incorrect examples. Please excuse me.

So why should we care? Well, think of correct punctuation as proper grammar. Sure, you can speak poorly and still get your point across just fine, but you won’t sound very smart or refined. Same goes for typography. If you spend the time to make sure your typography is correct, your layout will feel more elegant and refined, though most people would be hard-pressed to tell you why.

Plus, in the case of Delta, they paid a good chunk of change to have this sign printed. And then a newspaper photographer came and took a photo of it. Wouldn’t they have desired to have the right message come from it?

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4 Responses to “Apostrophe or Prime?”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Wow! Super interesting. I don’t think my keyboard even has a prime key. Thanks for the info. -Sarah

  2. Mix Creative Says:

    Hey Sarah, Thanks for the comment!

    I found a good blog post with a list of keyboard shortcuts for Mac OSX, which should certainly help things out! Check it out: http://malevolent.com/weblog/archive/2007/03/26/os-x-type-curly-quotes-accents/

    You can also view a PC keyboard cheat-sheet here: http://www.atm.ox.ac.uk/user/iwi/charmap.html

    Happy punctuating!

  3. The Fuss about Ligatures « Mix Creative Says:

    […] Scanning my document, I noticed she caught many of the typical errors: an extra space here, change curly quotes to hash marks for inches, change this word for that word. . . but what was this? She was circling all my […]

  4. Simanek Says:

    @Sarah: Actually, most U.S. English keyboards have a single and double prime key just to the left of the “Enter/Return” key. This is a carry-over from typewriters and early computers that used a simplified straight “quote” in order to avoid needing separate keys for left and right quotes.

    As described above, software has been developed so that today, with “smart quotes”, you can continue to type without thinking about whether you are using a left or right quote.

    Unfortunately this historical development has made the general public (and even many “professionals”) ignorant of the difference between singe/double primes and single/double/left/right quotes. The other problem is that “smart quotes” only work when primes are never used. In U.S.A. this can be a problem when referring to measurements of feet and inches.

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