Getting Smart with Quotes

You know how sometimes you see quotation marks and apostrophes that turn toward the text they’re associated with—and sometimes they’re just straight up and down, almost like hatch marks?

The former kind go by many names: directional quotation marks, smart quotes, curly quotes, or typographer’s quotation marks. And they’re much more pleasing to the reading eye than straight quotes are.

So what happens if you find that your manuscript is inconsistent in its style of quotation marks? Some are smart—brilliant, even—and others are just poor, unidirectional excuses for inverted commas. The inconsistency could drive you batty.

There’s actually a pretty quick way to fix this in one fell swoop or two, at least if you use Microsoft Word.

I’ve talked about using find-and-replace operations before. Enforcing consistent use of directional quotation marks (and apostrophes!) means we’ll revisit those functions.

CLARIFICATION: Now, you could put quotation marks (“) or an apostrophe (‘) in both the find and replace fields and run a fast replace-all operation for each. This would work, but it will replace every quotation mark and apostrophe, even the ones that are already smart and already facing the right direction. For the most part, that works, but because Microsoft Word isn’t a mind reader, it will make, for instance, every apostrophe or opening quotation marks after an em dash (—) face left. In my experience, we usually want those to open toward the right, and usually these are already correctly oriented if we have employed smart quotes for the most part. The slightly more technical solution below will help when you have both smart and straight quotes in a single document because it won’t change what’s already working for you. The more changes we make, the higher chance of introducing new errors, which we always want to avoid.

Luckily, you can specify that Word find straight quotes and apostrophes, leaving the already-smart quotation marks untouched. ^034 is the code for (straight) double quotation marks, and ^039 is the code for a (straight) single quotation mark, or apostrophe. How do you put this information to use?

First, make sure that you have Word set to automatically format any newly entered quotation marks as smart quotes. These options are usually available under Tools > AutoCorrect (choose the AutoFormat as You Type tab):

Autocorrect Settings

Make sure that the option to change straight quotation marks to smart ones is checked. Close this dialogue box to apply the settings.

Place your cursor at the start of your document. Then open the find-and-replace function—I usually go to the edit menu at the top of my screen and select Replace, which appears under the menu item called Find.

Then use the codes for straight quotation marks that I gave you above. The code goes in the Find field and the corresponding punctuation mark (single or double quotation marks) goes in the Replace field. Then hit replace all. Or, if you have more time, go through and replace them one by one to make sure that everything goes as intended.


You’ll have to do this twice, once for single quotation marks and once for double.


Once you’ve done both replacement operations, your document should consistently use directional quotation marks and apostrophes. Congratulations!

Where might you run into problems? Well, if any of your quotation marks or apostrophes have exraneous spaces before or after them, the computer might guess the wrong direction. For example, Timothy ‘s (instead of Timothy’s) will end up with a right-facing single quotation mark instead of the correct, left-facing apostrophe. Because of the inadvertent space, the computer will think that ‘s starts a new quotation rather than adds a possessive to the preceding name.

And then there’s the problem of quotation marks coming immediately after em dashes (—). Microsoft Word tends to think that the dash ends a quotation rather than introduces one. So you may get a closing quotation mark (left facing) when you really want an opening quotation mark (right facing). If you do do a replace-all with the quotation-mark codes, you can easily follow up with a search for —” and make sure that all those quotation marks are facing correctly.

So it’s not a foolproof method, but it’s pretty effective. Because they’re so powerful, find-and-replace operations (especially global, replace-all maneuvers) require caution. Practice safe text!

NOTE: I should say that in some cases you won’t want typographer’s quotation marks and apostrophes in the first place. Text for the web, for example, may be better off with unidirectional (straight) quotes. You don’t want to get too fancy when dealing with simple, unformatted text. And some publishers will want straight quotation marks and apostrophes—but you shouldn’t really worry about that. Publishers will be used to doing global find-and-replace operations to reverse any marks that are too darn smart.