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At the risk of being flamed, I'd like to understand why some people prefer to use a ``construction'' of accent and single quote characters rather than the "double-quote" character when quoting things?


Why do some users write quotes using ``weird'' quotes?

This is not command-line wizardry; I see this in written texts that are intended for humans to read. Here's an example I could quickly dig up. I find this construction ugly because it's asymmetrical, and because it abuses typographical characters for a purpose they weren't meant for. For some reason, this use of characters is mostly (exclusively?) done by Linux ((La)TeX?) users and not by the average computer user.

  1. If the intention is to create “curly quotes” then I don't get why only the opening quote is made "curly" using the grave accent (`) -- why is a plain apostrophe used for closing quotes, rather than the acute accent (´) which would make the whole thing symmetrical?

  2. If the intention is to create “curly quotes” then why are actual curly quotes (as created by MS Word) frowned upon? Modern computer systems handle actual curly quotes well, so it can't simply be a tradition from the Gopher days, can it?

  3. Why are two single characters used even though the same can be achieved with a single character?

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Any others? Sorry to be so picky it's just that one seems to be from 1999 and I wonder if there are any more modern examples of this usage (it fascinates me because I've either never seen it or never paid ``attention'' to it) –  Marco Ceppi Sep 20 '11 at 12:06
@Marco, I'm surprised that you haven't seen it, because I've seen it often enough to get annoyed at it. Unfortunately it's really, really, really hard to google for quotes, so it's hard for me to conjure up more examples... but now that you know, you might start to notice it! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 20 '11 at 12:50
I've always wondered this myself, and I can confirm that it's fairly common in Unixy contexts. (But yes, wrong Stackexchange) –  UncleZeiv Sep 20 '11 at 17:45
@Marco Ceppi: man pages and error messages are full of these, see for example man find or man tcpdump. –  arrange Sep 20 '11 at 19:19
This question has already been answered twice, here and here. –  Jon Purdy Sep 20 '11 at 20:12

3 Answers 3

up vote 44 down vote accepted

The real reason (and what may be the root cause of the LaTeX usage) is that many pre-unicode unix fonts (both for the console and X), and two common Adobe Postscript encoding vectors, had typographic opening/closing quote glyphs at these positions, so 'this' would look like ’this’, and ``this'' looked like ‘‘this’’ or ‛‛this’’, which was (especially in a proportional font where these were only 2-3 pixels wide) as close to typographically correct as you could get back then.

This goes back even further to typewriters, where the ' glyph would often be set at an angle to accomodate its use as an overstriking acute accent.

See also:

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Excellent links! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 20 '11 at 17:31
I think this should be the accepted answer! –  UncleZeiv Sep 20 '11 at 17:47

One reason is probably the influence of TEX to the Linux world. In most flavors of TEX, the sequence `` creates a typographically correct opening double quote (“) and '' (two single quotes) or " create a typographically correct closing quote (”). So When you type

``Why do you always say `shut up' to me?''

It actually yields

“Why do you always say ‘shut up’ to me?”

using TEX. (Perhaps with better kerning, though).

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This sounds like a perfect match - you've solved the mystery! Now, why do people write that way outside of tex.... nevermind! :) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 20 '11 at 12:47
My experience with this strange quote style has been through the man pages, which use nroff for formatting. nroff predates TEX by quite a bit. –  Mark Ransom Sep 20 '11 at 20:16
For those of us that have only used emacs to write TeX/LaTeX it automagically substitutes "quotedtext" for ``QuotedText'' –  crasic Sep 20 '11 at 21:11
It's used in TEX, but I think almost certainly pre-dates it, possibly by a long way. I certainly remember seeing it in The Times archive CD-ROMs in the school library when CD-ROMs were a brand new technology & being able to search all the text of last year's newspaper was an unbelievable achievement. This doesn't pre-date TEX, but I doubt it is related to it. –  rjmunro Sep 21 '11 at 9:10

in *nix systems different quotes have different effects.

using e.g.

echo 'date'

will write


to the output

echo `date`

will write e.g.

Tue Sep 20 13:42:04 CEST 2011

instead (so the output of the command "date")

In general your assumptions are wrong that quotes start with a different character than what they end with - they always have to be ended with the same as the one they have started with.

For e.g. the command "echo", you could also use multiple types of quotes. So let's say you want to show

"this is a test"

on the console, you can write

echo '"this is a test"'

You can also swap these quotes to produce single quotes.

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Thanks Roland! Your answer makes me realize that my question is inaccurate -- I was referring to written texts, not command-line commands. Apologies! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 20 '11 at 11:52
ok - sry. your original post just seemed as if you were asking right for this... didn't ever see quotes like you mention them before! –  Roland Kohn Sep 20 '11 at 11:58

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