Apostrophe imposter: How your word processing software is sabotaging your punctuation


Of all the nitpicky tasks I perform while copyediting and proofreading, here’s the nitpickiest: You know how you use apostrophes when you write rock ’n’ roll or ’80s or  ’twas? Well, my job includes making sure that those apostrophes are actually apostrophes and not apostrophe imposters.

Type rock ’n’ roll into Microsoft Word, look at the marks around N, and you’ll make a shocking discovery: Your software is out to get you. If your program is set to its defaults, chances are that the mark before the N is not an apostrophe but instead an open single quotation mark. You know, the ones you use for quotations within quotations, as in, “I heard someone yell, ‘Wait!’”

The difference is that the open single quotation mark curves to the right, like the letter C. The apostrophe curves to the left, making it identical to a closing single quotation mark in most fonts.

Of course, some fonts and printers and computer programs don’t curve their apostrophes at all. In those programs, the apostrophe looks like a straight dagger. So does their opening single quotation mark. With those programs, you can’t go wrong. But most of the time, whenever you type an apostrophe at the beginning of a word or number, your word-processing software will assume you’re starting to quote something and turn your apostrophe into a single quote mark.

If you’re the kind of person whose socks usually match, you’ll probably want to keep an eye out for those and change them to real apostrophes.

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