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Why do I sometimes see a backtick with a single quote `like this'? What's the name of this usage? What are some good references so I can find more information by myself?

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In many older computer character sets, characters 96 (accent grave) and 39 (apostrophe) were mirror images of each other, or close to it, so their use together made for more elegant looking quotations. Incidentally, on StackExchange web sites, enclosing text within character 96 like this causes it to appear differently. – supercat Oct 16 '12 at 15:56
I asked this same question over at StackExchange and was pointed to an article over on Programmers that provides additional background to @mgkrebbs's accepted answer above, if anyone's interested. – ele Mar 13 '13 at 18:38
up vote 16 down vote accepted

From the point of view of English usage, there is no difference other than appearance between the "backtick" (`) and the single quote mark ('). The characters exist in these forms because of compromises made in older computer character sets. Preceding computers, there is a long history in printing typography of using slightly different shapes for the opening and closing single quotes. In the more modern computer character set known as Unicode, there are new codes for these curved marks, the left (‘) and right (’) single quotes. Because of various problems with computers, a mix of all four single quote characters may be found, but should be considered equivalent (except for their visual appearance).

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One place this persists is in the typesetting software TeX, where `` is for , '' is for , and " goes unaltered. – Jon Purdy Mar 30 '11 at 18:02
@Jon Purdy: 1. " is not unaltered but replaced by in the output. 2. The reason of this use is that TeX uses (mainly) a ASCII input, where '"` are defined while “”‘’ are not ASCII characters – Frédéric Grosshans Mar 31 '11 at 9:55

Basically, as answered by @mgkrebbs, quotations like 'this' or `this' are faulty typographic usage introduced with limited character sets, first with 19th century typewriters then with digital character encoding. The proper (Unicode) characters are ‘these’. The same happens with apostrophe and primes (for feet and inches). One should type

“Alice’s friend told me ‘My son is 6′3″ tall.’”

instead of

"Alice's friend told me 'My son is 6'3" tall.'"

But it's easier said than done.

For reference about these various "apostrophes" I've found the following documents:

  • The official version : The Unicode standard 6.0.0 (the last version as of today), more specifically the chapter 6 Writing systems and punctuation (pdf) sections Language-Based Usage of Quotation Marks, Apostrophe p188-191 (12-14 of the pdf)
  • A paper by Michael Everson written in 1999, On the apostrophe and quotation mark, with a note on Egyptian transliteration characters, submitted as working group document N2043 to the Unicode consortium.
  • A webpage by Markus Kuhn, written roughly simultaneously in 1999 which explicitly discourages quotations `like this', with explanation on how and why these quotation appeared. Both Markus and Michael were involved in a thread on Unicode mailing list in 1999 about this problem, hence the two simultaneous paper.
  • Languagegeek also has a nice write-up on various apostrophes and quotation marks in the context of native English and American languages like Hawai‘ian.

Of course, all this is mainly on English. Digressing further away from your question, you have other interesting things like the Mè'phàà language of Mexico, which uses the straight quote as a casing letter (pdf), with both a lower case ꞌ and an upper case Ꞌ version, both added in Unicode 5.1.

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