Typography tip: Saving the apostrophe in the digital age

Typography tip: Saving the apostrophe in the digital age

Typography is the art of arranging letters, numbers, and symbols and has long been a vital component in the world of marketing. In the digital age, graphic designers and art directors select typefaces and use typography to craft messages that inform, inspire trust, connect with audiences, and build brands.

When it comes to creating content that drives action, details matter. Even the smallest typo or error can send the wrong message.

For example, because most word processors and graphic design programs automatically replace straight quotes with smart quotes (sometimes called curly quotes), it has become increasingly common to see a single opening quote trying to pass itself off as an apostrophe. In fact, one observant writer refers to this phenomenon as the apostrophe catastrophe and provides some poignant examples of backwards apostrophes on everything from bumper stickers and billboards to websites and even a professional basketball court.

As you can see, a single opening quote is not the same thing as an apostrophe:

Congratulations to the class of ‘19.
The single opening quote is incorrect.

Congratulations to the class of ’19.
The apostrophe is correct.

Straight quotes vs. smart quotes

Word processors and design programs use auto-correct to replace straight quotes (sometimes called dumb quotes) with smart quotes. This feature works with double quotation marks, single quotation marks, and apostrophes:

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
straight quotes

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
smart quotes

Quotation marks take on different shapes depending on whether they’re opening or closing:


opening quote
(shaped like a tiny 66)


closing quote
(shaped like a tiny 99)


single opening quote
(shaped like a tiny 6)


single closing quote
(shaped like a tiny 9)

(Note: In some typefaces, the difference between opening and closing smart quotes is very subtle or nonexistent.)

The apostrophe vs. the single closing quote

An apostrophe (’) and a single closing quote (’) look identical, though they’re two different forms of punctuation.

We use apostrophes to represent missing letters in contractions, to form possessives, to represent missing numbers, and, in rare cases, for clarity:

it’s = it is
don’t = do not
contractions

your company’s bottom line
Minnesota’s best parks
possessives

back in ’98
from ’05 to ’15
missing numbers

cross your t’s
dot your i’s
clarity

Note that apostrophes almost always appear in the middle of a word:

“I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

We use single quote marks, on the other hand, primarily for quotes within quotes:

“The word ‘disruption’ gets thrown around a lot these days,” she said.

A word processor’s smart quotes feature uses spaces to determine whether to insert an opening or closing quote. And, word processors automatically render apostrophes as single closing quotes.

When an apostrophe comes at the start of a word (or numeral), word processors automatically—and incorrectly—render it as a single opening quote. However, the correct form of punctuation here is an apostrophe:

The Minnesota Twins won the World Series in ‘87 and ‘91.
The single opening quotes are incorrect.

The Minnesota Twins won the World Series in ’87 and ’91.
The apostrophes are correct.

Is the backwards apostrophe the end of the world? Probably not. But it’s wrong, and errors can reflect poorly on your brand, particularly if you value attention to detail.

Of course, some people won’t notice the mistake. Or they may assume the backwards apostrophe is correct. But anyone who works in marketing should know the difference and stamp out backwards apostrophes whenever we see them. We should ban backwards apostrophes the way the rock band Van Halen demanded that no brown M&Ms be allowed backstage at their concerts back in the ’80s. (Hint: It had nothing to do with brown M&Ms.)

How to override your word processor and insert an apostrophe

If you’re ready to join the good fight to save the apostrophe in the digital age, here are six ways to type an apostrophe when your software insists on inserting a single opening smart quote:

  1. Use the Mac keyboard shortcut: option + shift + ].
  2. Use the Windows keyboard shortcut: alt + 0 1 4 6.
  3. Insert an apostrophe/single closing quote from the Symbols dialog box.
  4. Type two apostrophes and delete the first one.
  5. Type ’ in code editing software.
  6. Copy and paste a smart apostrophe from another source.

If all else fails, as a last resort, simply disable the smart quotes feature and use a straight quote instead.

CRC Marketing Solutions is a Minneapolis, Minnesota, digital agency that creates and executes ideas for building business.