Except they weren’t quotation marks. They were a simulacrum of quotation marks. They were flipped on their vertical axis. Even if they hadn’t been, they were in the wrong places. They were quotation marks as rendered by a cargo cult, as if someone had once seen a quotation mark but hadn’t ever actually used one.
Just looking at them now is making me kind of queasy.
Some may say: “Who cares?” Or, probably: ”Who cares?“
I care! I may not remember everything from my Catholic elementary school, but I do remember the nun in second or third grade sharing an easy way to remember how to write quotation marks: One quotation mark looks like “66,” she said. The other looks like “99.” You know 66 goes first because it’s a lower number than 99.
It’s usually apostrophes that people get wrong — or leave out entirely. The rest of Gu’s post is a good illustration: “cant wait to ski in the worlds first olympic freeski big air final tmo morning,” she wrote.
But that was on social media, a place where some slack must be cut. What bothers me are errors in the media and on packaging. There, the problem is usually with apostrophes that signal letters have been removed.
If a letter has been removed from a word, you replace it with an apostrophe, or what looks like a single close-quote mark — basically, a number 9. But you wouldn’t know that if you looked at a tub of Turkey Hill Cookies ‘n Cream ice cream or a box of SOFT ‘n PLUSH facial tissues.
It should be Cookies ’n Cream, or, I guess, Cookies ’n’ Cream. Or, if you’re not sure, Cookies and Cream. (Is that so hard?)
I’ve become obsessed with these mistakes. To find out how punctuation was invented in the first place, I spoke with Keith Houston, a Scottish software engineer and author of “Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks.”
Houston said the story of punctuation begins in the 2nd century BCE. For centuries, Greek had been written with no spaces between words. A librarian in Alexandria, Egypt, Aristophanes of Byzantium, thought the system could stand improving.
“He was doing lots of editing, trying to build a canonical version of ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad,’” said Houston. “He came up with a few marks meant to help him.”
These included dots that Aristophanes suggested be inserted in manuscripts to denote a pause.
Later, someone invented a mark called the diple. This sideways V was inked in the margins of manuscripts as a “catchall way to call out a block of text,” Houston said. It was especially handy in explicating Bible passages. Writers began using it to indicate a passage from Scripture, as opposed to their own commentary.
Then the comma arrived.
“The comma doesn’t seem to come from the diple but from the virgule, the slash,” Houston said. “The comma arose to break up clauses of speech.”
So, now we have the concept that distinctive text or other people’s words should get some special mark and we have a vaguely spermatozoic mark called the comma.
“Then printing comes along,” Houston said. “At some point printers were faced with a choice: ‘How do I typeset other people’s words?’”
It’s likely they decided to take the comma, rotate it 180 degrees and move it to the top of the line: Voilà, a single open quote mark. Move a regular comma up to the superscript position and you’ve got a close quote.
Part of the problem today, said Houston, is technology. Most computer keyboards don’t have separate keys for single and double open and close quotes. We depend on programs like Word to decide for us as we’re typing.
I showed Houston the NBC graphic — argh!!! — hoping he’d be as offended as I was. He wasn’t.
“It’s really easy to judge — sitting in an ivory tower, wherever it’s located and however high it is,” he said. “But these are not rules, only conventions.”
Still, he did give me a good quote: “I think what it comes down to is this: If you’re going to have a giant quotation mark, get it right. Take a long hard look at yourself. You only had two punctuation marks to add and you got them both wrong.”