Straight Quotes Versus Curly Quotes in Ebooks

I have mentioned my dislike for straight quotes in ebooks in earlier posts. I think they look amateurish and unfinished. Some people don’t mind them. Many people probably don’t even notice them. So this is one of those areas where personal preference should be the deciding factor.


This is from the w3schools html character reference guide:

Reserved Characters in HTML

Some characters are reserved in HTML and XHTML. For example, you cannot use the greater than or less than signs within your text because the browser could mistake them for markup.

HTML and XHTML processors must support the five special characters listed in the table below:

Character Entity Number Entity Name Description
" " quotation mark
' ' apostrophe
& & & ampersand
< < &lt; less-than
> > &gt; greater-than

(And look! This browser screwed up the copy/paste (or fixed it) and the table above isn’t complete. Follow the link to see the entire table with entity numbers.)

Keywords here: “…the browser could mistake them for markup.”

That is not a good thing. Ereading devices are essentially browsers and giving them an opportunity to mistake something is a big fat goof waiting to happen.

If your preference is for straight quotes (double and single) then go with your preference, but remember to code them either with the entity number or the entity name.

If you do go with curly quotes (or smart quotes), you’ll run into the frustration of them being turned occasionally backward by the infinite wisdom of your word processor (which insists upon doing what it’s told rather than what you mean). It’s a pain when you’re being a good doobie, composing your masterpiece with the auto-correct functions turned off in order to create a clean source file, but when you run a Find/Replace to turn on the curly quotes, quotes after em dashes or ellipses that should be right double quotes are instead turned into left double quotes, to name just one example.

You can however find and correct your curly double and single quotes with Find/Replace. I only know how to do it manually in Word. In a text editor I can do Replace All. In either case, it shouldn’t take long and the key is the search terms you use.

In Word look for instances where you’ve used double quotes before or after an elllipis or em dash. (I’d type the actual characters, but wordpress wants to “correct” them for me)

  • dash dash double quote
  • double quote dash dash
  • double quote period period period
  • period period period double quote

Or, if you’ve already converted your dashes into proper em dashes, do your search for:

  • ^+ double quote
  • double quote ^+

You get the picture, right? If you find an instance where the quote mark is turned the wrong direction, you can fix it. If you’re doing this in a text editor, you can search for the actual characters and do a Replace All to make sure they are turned the right way.

I also like to check for gremlin induced wrong way quote marks. I know right double quotes don’t belong at the beginning of a paragraph or sentence, and left double quotes don’t belong at the ends. In a text editor I run these searches:

  • <p>right double quote
  • left double quote</p>
  • (space bar)right double quote
  • left double quote(space bar)

I can either do the corrections manually or run a Replace All.

Single quote marks and apostrophes tend to turn the way they should. But here is a fun little gremlin that I’d never noticed until it was pointed out to me (and now I can’t unsee it!). I don’t even know what you’d call these, but I’m going with truncated contractions—words with their front ends chopped off, usually in dialogue. Examples:

  • ’em—as in “Smoke ’em if you got ’em.” (th)em
  • ’cause—as in “‘Cause I said so.” (be)cause
  • ’round—as in “Ain’t seen him ’round these parts.” (a)round

These words are contractions, which call for an apostrophe, and that means a RIGHT single quote mark. Fortunately, left single quotes aren’t used all that much in most American writing. You can search for specific usages (if you remember all the truncated contractions you used) or, if you’re in a text editor, you can search for left single quotes and change them to right single quotes as necessary.

Is this a pain. Yep. It’s worth it, though.





27 thoughts on “Straight Quotes Versus Curly Quotes in Ebooks

  1. I am giggling that someone else in this world understands the pain of recognizing proper vs improper smart quotes. My style prof was a big advocate of the dummy letter. That is, if you want to smoke ’em ’round the yard you typed “smoke a’em a’round” and then deleted the extra a…the dummy letter. It was a workaround to force word to format as the apostrophe and not the so for opening quotation mark. My life was never the same after that lecture.

  2. You are so right: once you’re sensitized to these little buggers, you can’t NOT see them.

    Unfortunately, I’m sensitized to all kinds of things other people don’t care about – ‘alot’, ‘alright’, the apostrophe in its (don’t even know how to write that – but I know when to use the possessive, and when it means ‘it is’ and many people don’t), principle/principal, may/might (don’t get me started)… (and yes, I know the comma should have gone inside the ‘alot’).

    The list is very long. It gets very tiring to keep getting yanked out of the fictive world.

    I hope to do better – we’ll see. You can correct my mistakes then. It’s getting so I question myself sometimes.

    • My biggest bugaboo is podium and lectern. One stands upon the podium and behind the lectern. Punctuation is maddening, too, and it’s worse now that I have to figure out not only where it goes in the story, but then have to worry what will happen to it during ebook conversion!

      • I have a lot to learn about ebook conversion – will be plowing into it soon.

        BTW, how is it some authors/publishers seem to defeat the button on my Kindle for Mac that shows the text in two columns? Some books allow me to see two, others do nothing when I try to get two columns.

        My monitor is wide, and it is physically uncomfortable to read across the whole thing. I can make the window narrower, but the best solution is when I click the two-column button, and can read an ‘open book’ on my screen. The content is the same, but the form factor is better.

        I like all the little touches you do (please, give me curly quotes properly oriented!).

        Maybe these touches take a while to learn, but there is no reason not too when each subsequent book would have them by default. It is almost as easy sometimes for the brain to remember things the right way as it is to continue to do them wrong.

        Then we would have real progress in quality of ebooks.

      • Hi, Abe, I don’t have a Mac and I don’t read ebooks on my screen. The only time I look at a converted book on the screen is to double-check the formatting and to play with links. Maybe one of this blog’s readers know what’s going on.

        I’ve learned (the hard way) to NOT mess with reading platform defaults. Yeah, I can force some things through, but all it takes is one little bug on their end or one hiccup or one misstep on my part to utterly destroy my formatting.

        Most irksome is knowing in advance that my ebooks are going to look better on some devices and worse on others, and the only way to make them 100% consistent across the board is to make them completely generic. Nuh uh. That’s something I just can’t do.

  3. Hi Jaye:

    Just wanted to mention that the Find/Replace in Word 2007 seems to have exorcised the gremlin you discussed regarding curly smart quotes… for the most part. I am having to do some cleanup, but not nearly the horror show you’ve described. Is is a reason to upgrade to Word 2007 or later? No! There is so much internal overhead in a docx file that I’m rueing the day I upgraded.

    Of course, it could be worse. We could have to convery every character to its named entity equivalent. (Actually, that may be coming with ePub3 — kidding!)

    • I just had an nightmare image, Jon… The real key to taming these little bugbears is just knowing they are there. Actually cleaning up the problems is no big deal.

    • What is your problem with docx? I ask because from my perspective docx is the best thing that ever happened to Word. I don’t understand what you mean by internal overhead.

      • Hi William:

        First, thanks for your excellent work and for sharing your knowledge with Jaye so she could share it with all of us.

        Now, to answer your question. It’s not the docx format that I find bloated, but the HTML that it creates due to all of the extra twaddle (my opinion) in CSS code and class application in the body of the code. From what I could see, much of it wasn’t needed, or even used, in the body.

        I don’t remember that occurring with earlier versions of Word (that is, prior to Word 2007). I may be giving the docx format an unfair slam, when it’s really the “helpful” nature of newer versions of word processing software that’s the culprit.

        I guess I just prefer getting as clean and uncluttered a source file as possible when I start creating my ePub.

  4. Jaye, you just saved me from a huge problem. I had no idea I couldn’t use greater than and less than signs because the browser would think of them as markup. D’oh!

    Oh, no! And I just handed off a manuscript to my formatter with in it. Never mind why, but I needed those symbols for something. Now I’ll have to change them to…I don’t know…brackets I guess.

    The learning curve on this stuff is huge.

    • Actually you can use the greater/lesser than symbols with no problems if you or formatter will turn them into numbered or named entities. They should behave then. Unless one is using Word rather than html, and then I’ve no idea what will happen to them. Pain, isn’t it?

  5. Thanks for standing up for curly quotes. One of my biggest turnoffs when sampling an -ebook is the presence of straight quotes. To me it suggests someone wasn’t paying attention, and my trust is diminished in their ability to pay attention to other details that matter in a book. Details matter, and that’s just one reason I love reading your articles.

    • I try not to be too harsh, Bridget (not always successful). Ever since I started with ebook production I’ve discovered a million and one little details I never had to bother my head with when all I was doing was writing. That’s what writers REALLY need to consider when and if they decide to go indie. All the stuff that happens between writing the book and collecting the money–somebody has to do it, and if you’re an indie, that someone is YOU.

  6. A few caveats. Most of the time, you can safely use quote marks without worrying about it being interpreted as markup, but you can never depend on it.

    By the way, despite what you read, the web (and your ereader) doesn’t support ISO-8859-15 (check the link that Jaye has). If that was true, you all wouldn’t have your curly quotes. Look it up. ISO-8859-15 does not support curly quotes at all. Everywhere on the web and in ereader docs where it says that they support ISO-8859-15, what they really mean is that they support Windows-1252. It is the same thing except that Windows-1252 adds a whole bunch of really useful characters, like the curly quotes, in place of some control characters that nobody really needs. The whole ISO-8859-15 story is just a polite fiction we tell non-technical folks to avoid bringing up a bunch of silly in-fighting.

    I bring this up because if you were really detail oriented and wanted to format an ebook for the Kindle, you would go read Amazon’s KDP docs and see that they support ISO-8859-15. Then you would look that up and see that there is no way to get curly quotes in a KDP. Except you would be totally wrong because you can’t believe the docs.

    • It’s a darned good thing that I can’t make heads or tails of those docs written by techie-types. I just say, huh, then fumble my way around until I get what I want. Heh.

      I never submit a raw file (Word or html) to Amazon’s converter directly, I always convert the files into ebooks through Mobipocket or Calibre. Thus far it’s working fine.

      p.s. How are you doing, William? Any closer to getting us a one-stop program so I can quit obsessing about this stuff?

    • William, *is* there a place to find out which code sets do and don’t work on various e-Readers? Should one simply assume the Windows-1252 set and hope for the best? (And where can I find a detailed list of said set, similar the one Jaye linked to above for ISO-8859-15?) I don’t have constant access to a Kindle, but I do have a Nook Tablet, so I can test ePub files quickly and easily. And, even then, things that display on the eReader “correctly” do not display correctly on some PC-based eReaders (including both Sigil’s and Calibre’s) — the big one I notice is the “zero-width non-joining” character, which displays as a black vertical bar on some of the PC-based eReaders I’m using. It does display “correctly” on Nook-for-PC, though.

      • The short answer is no, there is no good place to find this stuff. I am trying to collate all this info, but I have a moving target. New devices, software updates to old devices, and new fonts can all change the answers to your question. I am considering creating a test lab to help with this, but that is an expensive undertaking. The mobileread forums are the best place to ask specific questions.

  7. I absolutely agree with you that curly quotes are preferable. To me, straight quotes are a holdover from the days where we had to submit our manuscripts in Courier. I did get burned by curly quotes once though. Turns out that if you copy your book’s title from a Word doc directly into Goodreads, you will never be able to search on that title again. You actually have to ensure that you used straight quotes.

    Admittedly, this is the only exception I’ve seen. Thanks for pointing out the differences.

  8. Maybe you could come up with 1) a list of features which make ebooks look better, and 2) a seal of approval for books submitted to you which display a majority of those features.

    Joel Friedlander does it for ebook covers – and you care about appearances!

    I suggest this step after reading several ebooks lately which eschewed minimum standards – and were physically hard to read. There’s only so much my brain is willing to do (I won’t read Cormac McCarthy – All the pretty horses, etc., because I can’t read dialogue without quotation marks and apostrophes – and no one at his (traditional) publisher made him. The text is unbelievably hard to parse for my tired brain any more.

    One ebook disdained using either indents for new paragraphs OR a blank line – and had lines way too close together, to boot. And these are things you can’t fix on your ereader.

    I haven’t yet tried whatever it is that Scrivener produces for defaults, though I assume you can enhance/defeat its default choices. I got Scrivener to produce my own ebooks – I will be evaluating its output against your posts.

    Or, if you like, you could continue to point out the books you find particularly appealing – and tell us exactly why. Thanks!

    • Hi, Abe,
      I don’t know if I could run an Ebook design award feature the way Joel does (which I read religiously every month, by the by, and have learned tons from him). I do love it when people send me screen shots and links so I can see what they’ve done.
      The way I see it, we’re all in this together, so the more we share, the better we will get.
      And now you’ve given an idea for another blog post.
      By the way, you CAN set your own defaults for Scrivener. When you open up a new file, instead of choosing one of their templates or “blank,” make your own template. Give it a name and it should be there, ready to go any time you need it.

  9. I’ll throw in a late comment about ellipses: I’ve seen a few eBooks out there that have tried to enter correct ellipses . . .. The only problem is that when different programs wrap the text, the periods end up on different lines and it looks like sloppy/incorrect punctuation.   between the periods will keep the ellipsis together tidily.

      • One more time, use a no-break space between ellipses and a comma or period at the end of a line. The named entity for that is & nbsp ; (only closed up–the spaces are just to fool WordPress).

        That’s a great tip and wish I had thought of it first!

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