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I think that quotation marks are for quoting, and the apostrophe is used for its own things. But it is often suggested that the right single quotation mark (’) should be used instead of the apostrophe ('), especially in typography. Some text processors and typesetting systems automatically replace apostrophes by right single quotation marks, and Grammarly complains that the characters are inconsistent if it sees text with the apostrophe and one of „, “, ”, ‚, ‘, ’.

Why is the right single quotation mark used as the apostrophe? I think that that they are different characters looking different is good because they have different functions. That they look different can help understand text which would be ambiguous if they looked the same until the reader read more of the text and backtracked, like in this example:

Amy says “Bruce said ‘one of the greatest humans' achievements of all time’ yesterday.”.

If this sentence had the right single quotation mark as the apostrophe, the reader might think that the inner quote ends at “humans'” and realise while reading “achievements of all time’” that this was still part of the inner quote, which would lead to an interruption of reading.

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    They are the same in handwriting. Feb 22 at 15:50
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    I think what you call an apostrophe is what I would call a straight single quotation mark, and may not have existed in printed English before the advent of the typewriter. Likewise I am under the impression that the uses of the lone single apostrophe preceded that in pairs as an alternative to double quotation marks. (I need to check, but I may have provided examples in other answers regarding typography.) I would suggest that before telling us what you think you do the research required here to check whether your opinions have any basis in historical usage.
    – David
    Feb 22 at 16:40
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    Really, this is about typography, not English. Apostrophes have literally nothing to do with the English language -- they are a band-aid stuck on a word to try unsuccessfully to indicate something in writing. What it indicates varies unpredictably, and may have to do with clitics, suffixes, missing letters in the spelling, but not what people say. Lis'ten to the a'postrophe's as you pron'ounc'e this sent'ence, frintance. Feb 22 at 17:20
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    @David Typography is one set of ways to write English, But they don't help the reader understand the meaning of anything. Meaning has to do with language and words and sentences, which are oral. Even illiterates can speak, and always have. Kids learn to speak in 4-5 years; then they unlearn speaking in favor of medieval technology in service of modern needs. Feb 22 at 19:46
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    Traditionally, at least in England,"quote marks" were called inverted commas.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 22 at 20:39

1 Answer 1

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Summary

The question can be summarized as a negative response of the poster to a recommendation from a software application. This was not to use the typographical symbol variously called the neutral, vertical or straight single quotation mark ('), to indicate omission or possession. The justification presented for using the straight single quotation mark is that this symbol bears the name apostrophe — and an apostrophe in English is a symbol used to denote omission or possession. The poster argues further that mixed usage with what may be called right and left turned commas or curly quotation marks (used for quoting) can prevent ambiguity in certain situations.

My answer addresses the question solely in relation to print publications, in which the use of such typographical symbols developed and is standardized. It rejects the argument on the primary grounds that straight quotation marks have never been used in professional printing, but were invented for the typewriter and adopted by early computer text systems because of physical and technical limitations when they were introduced. It explains why the nomenclature applied to the straight single quotation mark (apostrophe) does not define use, as well as not reflecting practice.

Scope of this answer

The primary scope of this answer is the historic and contemporary British and US print usage of these typographical symbols, as I believe that this allows an objective answer — one that falls within the remit of SE EL&U. My answer is not concerned with text transmitted electronically and viewed on a computer display (e.g. web pages) nor does it present my opinion of the advice given by proprietary software regarding personal writing style.

Reference Nomenclature

In order to discuss the characters it is necessary to name them. The argument regarding the name apostrophe may be based on the Unicode name for this symbol, so I present the Unicode designation and descriptions, together with the names I shall use here — all bearing the designation quotation mark, but without prejudice to their function.

' "
Unicode No. U+0027 U+2018 U+2019 U+0022 U+201C U+201D
Unicode Name Apostrophe Left Single Quotation Mark Right Single Quotation Mark Quotation Mark Left Double Quotation Mark Right Double Quotation Mark
My Description Straight Single Quotation mark Left Single Quotation Mark Right Single Quotation Mark Straight Single Quotation mark Left Double Quotation Mark Right Double Quotation Mark

To avoid the appearance of prejudice I shall avoid my normal practice of using quotation marks round words in my commentary, italicizing them instead.

Straight single and double quotation marks (' and ")

It is convenient to start with straight quotation marks, as I think that they are easily disposed of. To quote one article:

Straight quotes are a typewriter habit. In traditional printing, all quotation marks were curly. But typewriter character sets were limited by mechanical constraints and physical space. By replacing the curly opening and closing quotes with ambidextrous straight quotes, two slots became available for other characters.

Another article in this vein goes on to explain how this spilled over to computer text:

These symmetrical quotation marks (called “straight quotes”) had never existed until they were invented to address the mechanical limitations of the typewriter. They carried over into the limited ASCII character set used by teletypes and early computers, and are still a standard feature of computer keyboards today, long after the mechanical and digital limitations that led to their creation have gone.

The international nature of the Internet soon extended the repertoire of supported characters, allowing the inclusion of curly quotation marks, and the problem is long gone even for personal printed material.†

As far as print was concerned, the problem never existed. The only use I know of straight quotation marks is in computer programming languages, where some languages (e.g. Java) use them for distinct purposes, whereas others (e.g. JavaScript) allow both for quoting Strings, enabling nested quotation marks from another language. (This is similar to the usage in the example of the poster.)

Right Single Quotation Mark or apostrophe (’)

It is convenient to consider the Right Single Quotation Mark next, because this is, in fact, the object to which the (misunderstood, in my opinion) name apostrophe was given, the first written use of which was in 1588 (David Crystal, Making a Point, 2015). The first recorded use in a book printed in English was in 1559, over 300 years before the introduction of the commercial typewriter and single quotation marks in the late nineteenth century, and 400 years before Unicode in the late 20th century. This apostrophe was, of course, a curly inverted comma (this is evident in the illustration below), and it is worth mentioning that the Unicode advice is to use the Right Single Quotation mark (U+2019) for the apostrophe (as @CanadianYankee commented).

As the apostrophe, the symbol U+2019 was not introduced as a quotation mark but for other purposes, those that have become most established being (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary):

  1. To indicate the omission of a letter or letters as in:

can’t (for cannot)

  1. A sign of the modern English genitive or possessive case, as in:

boy’s, boys’ (of the boy, of/for etc. the boys)

The original sixteenth century use was for omission, and the genitive use arose in the seventeenth century. The symbol was only later used in combination with the left single quotation mark, below, for reported speech and the like.

Left Single Quotation Mark (‘)

This symbol, in combination with the right single quotation mark discussed above, is one of the alternatives for quoting speech in modern English printed works. The other main alternative is the paired left and right double quotation marks, which Crystal (op. cit.) states preceded the paired single quotation marks. In both forms they were initially a single entry on the left of each line. The illustration below shows an example from 1748 when they were in a state of transition to the modern paired combination with Right Single Quotation mark (’), enclosing the quoted text.

Left Single quotes at start of each line

Left and Right Double Quotation Marks (“ and ”)

The first recorded use of the Left Double Quotation mark was in 1683 as the quotation quadrant, initially as a margin mark and subsequently paired with the Right Double Quotation mark, in an analogous manner to the paired Single Quotation marks, described above. The illustration below is from a text dated 1769.

Double Quotation marks as marginal marks

Eventually double quotation marks became the dominant form but, perhaps influenced by the redesign of Penguin books in 1947 by Jan Tschichold, single quotation marks are now probably more common in Britain. Double quotation marks have remained the standard form in the US.

Non-quotational uses of paired Single Quotation Marks

Paired Single Quotation Marks (and, less-frequently, double quotation marks) can also be used to draw attention to a word for particular purposes — a practice of some pedigree. The contemporary name for these is scare quotes, and they are dealt with in the answers to this question. They are not really relevant to this question, but their use together with paired double quotation marks for quotation can be argued as having the virtue of helping to distinguish between the two types of use.

Ambiguity

The poster justifies a proposal for mixing straight and curly quotation marks as a way to deal with a perceived ambiguity between a final right single quotation mark and a possessive plural apostrophe within a quotation. I would suggest that such a rare ambiguity might trouble a simple computer program, but not the human mind, which uses context to disambiguate.

Footnote
Text input for the web is another matter. Web forms (e.g. those for Stack Exchange contributions) and plain text applications used for writing HTML default to straight quotation marks, so that special key combinations or text prepared on a word processor are need to obtain curly quotation marks. That explains the unfortunate situation in which the on-line Cambridge Dictionary shows a curly inverted comma to illlustrate its definition of apostrophe, but uses straight quotation marks for examples of usage.

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