A Word, Please: The single quote's busy season is here

'Tis the season for a lot of people to use the expression “tis the season.” And though some folks think this is a tired cliché, I have no problem with it.

True, it’s far from original. But this famous fragment from the carol “Deck the Halls” can cast a jolly light on just about any phrase that follows. So I don’t see any harm in using it to infuse a little holiday cheer into your writing.

Yet I do have a problem with “’tis the season” — a very obscure problem that occurs only at the intersection of my work and my computer software. It has to do with that apostrophe on “’tis” and the fact that, all too often, it’s not really an apostrophe. Instead, it comes out as an open single quotation mark.

And the really annoying thing is that this error happens even though the writer got it right.

On a computer keyboard, the apostrophe key and the key you use to make a single quotation mark are one and the same. Just to the right of the semicolon key is the button we use all the time to insert apostrophes with no problem whatsoever — especially in contractions. Type “it’s,” “who’s,” “let’s” or “they’re” in Microsoft Word or similar word-processing software and the end result is probably exactly what you were aiming for: a little dagger-looking mark squeezed between letters that indicates something omitted.

Many word-processing problems curve the mark just a wee bit, giving the text a more polished look. Microsoft Word calls this a “smart quotes” feature and, unless you tell your computer otherwise, it automatically makes this change for you.

Most people never give this a moment’s thought and never have a problem with it. Indeed, most people could probably go their whole lives and never even notice.

Of course, most people don’t work as proofreaders, so they don’t realize just how vexing that little curvature can be in certain cases. You see, when the apostrophe comes in the middle of a contraction, these word-processing programs will curve it slightly to the left. But when it comes at the beginning of a word or a number, the program will curve it like the letter C, with the opening to the right, which actually changes this mark from an apostrophe to an open single quotation mark.

Single quotation marks, if you recall, are used for quotations within quotations: “Stop saying ‘dude’!” They perform the same function as regular quotation marks, indicating verbatim speech or calling attention to specific words.

Like garden-variety double quotation marks, they need not curve at all. But when they do, they curve around the words they enclose. So an opening single quotation mark curves with the opening to the left, like the letter C, and a closing single quotation mark curves in the direction opposite C.

An apostrophe, when it curves, opens to the left — the opposite of the letter C. So, technically, a software program that curves your apostrophe to the right is inserting a punctuation mark you never intended.

This is pretty nitpicky stuff. But for us proofreaders, finding and correcting these is part of the job. For example, it comes up a lot in truncated decades like “the ’80s.”

In fact, that’s about the only time this unintended single quotation mark crops up — in decades. It’s almost never a problem with actual words, except a certain jolly time of year when a certain variation on “it is” enjoys an annual surge of popularity.

That’s why right now ’tis the season of minor apostrophe errors.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.
 
 

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