Comma, Apostrophe, Quote, Grave, Prime, Foot and Inch

Let’s focus on a few character-specific type basics this week – lookalikes. What they are, how they’re used, brief, to the point.




The comma is a punctuation mark that indicates a short pause. It hangs off the baseline, spiraling outward from its interior in a clockwise fashion. You already know this.



An apostrophe is a floated comma that usually hangs somewhere in the air between the ascender and x-height lines. Its precise purpose is that of a stand-in character for parts left out in a contraction or otherwise abbreviated word (it is becomes it’s, international becomes int’l, 1975 becomes ’75), and also in possessives (Shays’s Rebellion or Black’s Law). Ah yes, and some confused people commonly use apostrophes in pluralizing acronyms. In typefaces, apostrophes are commonly drawn with some optical variation from the comma.

Single Quotes, Double Quotes, Open & Close


Quotes, in brief: Quotation marks are for quoting, repeating an utterance exactly as it was said. Use double quotes for this, and single quotes for quotations within quotations. Quote marks point in opposite directions to indicate an opening and closing of the quote. A single open quote is a single close quote more or less rotated in place by 180°. A single close quote is visually indistinguishable from an apostrophe. Now, all that’s true when typesetting English, but depending on the language, quotes may be placed in different positions or face in directions different than those in the familiar usage illustrated above. They may also not be shaped like the quotes above, like for example, «these».

Oh! Also – mirrored open quotes, or grocer’s quotes, are generally seen as endearing relics by English-speaking audiences, though they do have their own unicode addresses, and are the default in some fonts, including some non-display fonts such as Verdana, though not in the latest release of Verdana.

Dumb quotes


Dumb quotes exist because of typewriters. Apostrophes, open and close single and double quotes were reduced to two straightened characters out of pure economy. I can’t fault the inventors. Their machines were never intended for professional typesetting. I could however fault most of the assumptions made since about the necessity of and methods for accessing these ‘extra characters.’ Note how I use single quotes in that last sentence to mark what’s essentially a paraphrased term? If I can’t cite who said it, I feel like double quotes are a bit much. Of course, that’s definitely my own made-up convention.



Meanwhile, the grave accent character can be accessed all alone with a single keystroke. There it is at the top left of your keyboard, just below the escape key. This character is almost good for nothing on its own. Some truly well-meaning people have attempted to give this character something to do, such as indicate a glottal stop, or to make up for the lack of open single and double quotes. Fact is, it’s a combining character, not one to use on its own in professional typsetting unless it itself is the subject of discussion. Use key combinations to put the grave above other characters, such as the e above.

‘Okina, & similar characters


Speaking of glottal stop, the ʻokina above is represented by an open single quote, though it has its own character in Unicode called MODIFIER LETTER TURNED COMMA at this address: U+02BB. ‘Okina is a Hawaiian character, but its representation in Unicode is used by other languages who have other names for it.



Lastly, primes are by contrast quite multi-use characters. In math, primes mark sequential varations of variables. You’ve also seen them marking coordinates on a map, arcminutes (one sixtieth of a degree) with a single prime, arcseconds (one sixtieth of one arcminute) with a double prime. The fractional units of arcsecond, milliarcsecond and microarcsecond, are not represented with triple prime ( ‴ ) and quadruple prime ( ⁗ ), just in case you were wondering. Prime and double prime can also be applied to minutes and seconds as measures of time. Above, in their most common role, they indicate feet and inches. What you see above are in fact italicized straight quotes, same as dumb quotes above, kerned. It turns out that primes aren’t so common in typefaces designed for professional typesetting, so it’s good to know where one has to make do.

Anyway, this is the introduction. Next week, we’ll wrap this up with some tips on how to use all these similar and easily-confusable characters, and what common pitfalls to look out for. Special thanks to Mark van Bronkhorst’s Verdigris for setting all the samples. Till Thursday, I’m David Sudweeks and this is Using Type.


  1. dpawson
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 12:40 AM | Permalink

    Thanks. Fascinating.

  2. Posted June 20, 2013 at 8:44 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for this helpful blog. As a creative lead, I find that typography is one of the weakest areas in graphic design education.

  3. Posted February 21, 2014 at 4:53 PM | Permalink

    Is the Unicode address for apostrophe the same for the closing single quote?

  4. Posted February 21, 2014 at 10:54 PM | Permalink

    Hi Jucá. It is!—at least for the closing single quote that is visually indistinguishable from the apostrophe. (Different languages do quotes differently.)

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