30

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?

3

3 Answers 3

25

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).

2
  • 10
    One place this persists is in the typesetting software TeX, where `` is for , '' is for , and " goes unaltered.
    – Jon Purdy
    Mar 30, 2011 at 18:02
  • 5
    @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 Mar 31, 2011 at 9:55
30

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.

0
0

4 single quote characters:

  1. backtick (aks grave accent) `
  2. (real) single quote mark (apostrophe) '
  3. left single quotes
  4. right single quotes.

raw markdown of above

1. backtick (aks grave accent) ``` ` ```
2. (real) single quote mark (apostrophe)  `'`
3. left single quotes `‘` 
4. right single quotes. `’`

This is wrong, as least for latex:

a mix of all four single quote characters may be found, but should be considered equivalent (except for their visual appearance).

latex: enter image description here

apostrophe and primes

enter image description here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prime_(symbol)

1
  • This answer should stick to the usage within the English language and not concern itself with computer markup languages which are out of scope on this site. Feb 13, 2022 at 8:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.