A Grave Situation

Published: Fri 28 July 2017

In Blog.

Being ever-so-slightly “OCD touched”, the fact that using quotes in my standard Vim setup doesn't result in them automatically being “smart-quoted” has been a buzzing background noise for some time now. For all RMS's perennial reminders of the evil of proprietary software, it's like the most compelling of vices, you keep coming back to what “just works with next-to-no effort”—in this case, Microsoft Word's auto-smart-quoting facility.

Smart quotes dialogue capture

I can never remember the Unicode character codes for so-called typographer's quotes (that is, quotes with direction). Perhaps my writing an article about this issue will help me with that, ... or perhaps I should just do the sane thing and automate it.

This is a lovely article expounding on the various types of accents and quotes typically used, together with their Unicode “code points”. Dr Kuhn has some particularly strong words to say about the erroneous use of grave accents as single quotes.

When I worked for SevenC Computing, well over a decade ago now, my then partner and mentor introduced me to m4, a macro-processing utility used for a variety of things on the Unix platform, most notably generating the much-dreaded sendmail.cf file (thankfully, my Sendmail days are over). In any case, I could never quite understand why the makers of m4 decided on an open/close quote pair of GRAVE ACCENT/APOSTROPHE —it looked beyond strange:

define(`H2_COUNT', 0)

As with many things, once you have context, things fall into place; taken from Dr Kuhn's article:

Unfortunately, the X Window System fonts contained for a long time the following mutually symmetric glyphs:

GRAVE ACCENT:accent-img

So if you were using the old X Windows fonts, then things would end up looking hunky-dory, because ... well, incorrectly represented glyphs would be used. Using old X Windows fonts, the m4 bit above would look more like:

define(‛H2_COUNT’, 0)

I don't think there's a name for this particular quirk of technology history (is there an opportunity to name it? Some contenders: glyphosus, apostrophitus, exglyphfailus?). This reminds me of another curiousity that I never quite got my head around, namely: why do Unix-heads call it “minus”?.

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