Easily the most maligned key on your computer’s keyboard lies just to the left of “return” and represents what appear to be single and double quotation marks. It is a cuckoo’s egg in the designer’s nest. It doesn’t belong. Unless we put a finger on the key’s history and purpose, we risk being cuckolded, in the truest sense of the word.
Graphic design, as a trade, is remarkable for the scope of its jurisdiction, ranging from the first-read of a designed object down to structures of meaning and fine editorial details. But we neglect the latter when favoring the former in our discourse. An unbalanced infatuation with posters and book covers delimits our collective perception. This wide-angle view precludes any awareness of the influence exerted by a small character displayed on our keyboards.
Most of us would agree with this statement: The quote-like characters on the keyboard are not actually English quotes; they are primes, and serve as foot-inch indicators. Trained designers “know” this, but it is only half true (and half false, and in that order).
The True Half: “The quote-like characters on the keyboard are not actually English quotes...”
The characters displayed on the key in question [ " ] don't have a singular name — there is no consensus. They’re alternately referred to as typewriter quotes, dumb quotes, ASCII quotes and neutral quotes. While typewriter quotes, as a term, is quite revelatory, neutral quotes (or simply neutrals) is favorably concise.
Designers are famously nauseated by novices’ use of neutral quotes in place of true quotes. They are poor surrogates. To the trained eye, they look remarkably out of place. There are two reasons for this. The one is that our eyes have been trained: the point is made repeatedly in a designer’s education by sensitized instructors whose concern is correctness. The other is simply that, inherent in the actual typeface designs, neutrals often are out of place.
As a striking example, the neutrals in the digital font Franklin Gothic ITC BQ have formal characteristics found nowhere else in the type design. They consist of a rounded top, a straight taper and an angular bottom. Roundness within such a small form is completely unprecedented when considering other characters: the period, comma, quotes and accents are all completely angular. These neutral quotes engender a conflicted aesthetic.
The reason for this seems obvious when considering other digital versions of ITC Franklin Gothic. The neutral from a Microsoft version supplied with PCs has a full taper with no rounded top; Adobe’s has a tapered bottom below a heavy rectangle, all angular; and Bitstream’s is a plain, thin rectangle. Aside from this one odd character, these typefaces show only the subtlest of differences. All of these Franklin Gothics are based on the same ITC source design, which predated the computer. The differences are easily explained if the neutral quote wasn’t in the originals. If added by another designer in another era (a different designer for each digitized version), the incongruities would make perfect sense.
Reproductions of phototypesetting films in Jim Craig’s Phototypesetting support this hypothesis. These films predate desktop publishing (thus digitization of existing typefaces) and lack neutral quotes altogether.
So where were the neutral quotes before the computer if not in professional printing? I believe the answer is in our discarded but descriptive term typewriter quotes, for they first appeared in the 19th century on typewriters. The reason for their invention was purely economical: space was at a premium, and separate keys for opening and closing quotation marks [ “ ” ] seemed wasteful. The economic imperative was strong; for example, some typewriters omitted the numeral “1,” surely to be replaced in practice with the lowercase “l” or capital “I.”
For a singular mark to supplant both opening and closing quotes, a new form was necessary, one that favored no direction and appeared reasonably familiar.
So neutral quotes were born unto the typewriter. Since typewriters were a direct writing method and couldn't mass-produce, the neutral quote was confined there. As only proxy for true quotes, neutrals weren’t transportable to professional printing.
This changed with the personal computer and desktop publishing. Previously, input with a keyboard was performed live onto paper by a typist. With desktop publishing, keystrokes on keyboards — now wired to computers — were instead saved and directly output to professional printing. This is unfortunate, as the neutral quote — that wholly degenerate form — has since been utilized so relentlessly.
The neutral quote is nothing. Considering its purely derivative nature, it should serve no function whatsoever in proper typesetting. Perhaps we should know this, but we don’t. It so happens that there is a use to which we commonly ascribe the neutral quote.
The Half-Truth: “...they are primes, and serve as foot-inch indicators.”
The second half of our statement has some truth to it: prime symbols [ ″ ] are proper abbreviations of feet (single) and inches (double). They can also signify minutes and seconds of time or arc, and have further uses in mathematics.
Where the statement goes wrong is in misidentifying neutrals as primes. We’ve learned that neutrals are merely degenerate quotes, only recently liberated from the typewriter. But primes were serving their numerous functions long before neutrals emerged.
Surprisingly, typographic manuals — authoritative sourcebooks for designers — frequently confound primes with neutrals. I’ve found only one of the more celebrated manuals that correctly identifies primes: James Felici’s Complete Manual of Typography (which also details the true pedigree of neutral quotes). But why are many popular textbooks erroneous and only one accurate? Perhaps it’s too easily assumed that a prominent character on the keyboard must be something, just as an egg must belong in its nest. The prime — more than any other character — seems a good candidate for misattribution because it’s otherwise hard to find and does bear a superficial similarity to the neutral quote.
But similar is not selfsame. Programmers know this because in functioning code, a prime and a neutral quote are precisely as discordant as any two unrelated characters. As such, it isn’t surprising that the source of my own neutral-ain’t-prime realization came from a programmer's HTML tutorial, and not the one correct type manual.
No, it’s still surprising. This issue is undeniably under the typographer’s purview. I haven’t seen a single correct use of primes in any printed ephemera in the last few years (including my own recent work, I’ll admit). But art publishers — a specialized industry listing canvas dimensions well before the neutral even existed for printing — quite often get it right.
Canvas dimensions often include the multiplication symbol [ �— ] in addition to primes—or they should. But typographers often use the letter “x” instead. Like primes, the multiplication symbol is not represented on the keyboard. Like neutrals, the letter “x” does appear on the keyboard. But there is a noteworthy difference between these two right-wrong pairs: the letter “x” was never exclusive to the typewriter. It has always been available in professional printing. The “x” error occurs as often as it’s avoided, regardless of publication date. This suggests something about earlier (and correct) use of primes. It seems to be less about some lack of competency in the present, and more about a lack of opportunity to err in the past.
Though an obsessive attention to detail might eradicate the “x” error from practice, that’s not enough for the neutral error. It will persist so long as it’s supported in typographic manuals. When experts’ source material contains mistakes, they tend to be amplified throughout the practice.
A fresh sensitivity to primes is further hindered by their chronic absence in most digital fonts. The prime appears almost exclusively in a few core system fonts for Macs and PCs — supplied to meet the more exacting needs of the programmer (however counter-intuitive that seems to a typographer). They are exceedingly rare in fonts marketed to professional designers, which compounds the problem: typographers aren't about to employ characters missing from their typefaces.
The design community has shown concern over the increasing availability of design-based tools, worrying that the novice who makes design is a threat to the profession. They’re not. Indeed, they’re part of the profession — by definition — when designing, are they not? But however wide your pronoun (we) casts its net, the truth remains: Proprietary knowledge will always separate the expert from the novice, so long as it’s retained.
This essay is not so much about the cuckoo bird or its egg. It’s about the caretaker: a reed warbler, let's say. Will the reed warbler return to its nest and notice something hidden in plain sight, and suspect that it's out of place, and question its presence, and care, and act accordingly?
The cuckoo bird and the keyboard, in their little, discrete way, demonstrate that our tools not only affect how we work, but what we know.
They also suggest that punctuation marks are the stuff of perfectly valid concern. To establish expertise, we must be attentive to — and concerned with — such minor details as these. To maintain expertise, we must identify fallacies in our practice. And then, with pleasure or dispassionate handicraft, reject them from our nest.