Fixing Straight Quotes in Word Documents

Law review editors and lawyers, take note.

|

Most professional printed materials use curly quotes (including apostrophes) rather than straight quotes. We can debate whether that's a good idea, but it's the norm for printed text; check out the typical newspaper, book, or printed court opinion.

Microsoft Word (and doubtless other word processors) lets you automatically format single and double quotes as curly instead of straight as you type. (If it's not on for you automatically, go to File / Options / Proofing / AutoCorrect As You Type / AutoFormat As You Type / Replace as you type "Straight quotes" with "smart quotes," at least in Word 365.) Once you turn that on, you can also do a bulk search-and-replace of ' with ' and then of " with ", and the replacement will automatically curl the quotes.

That auto-formatting is imperfect: For instance, if you want to type "'abc'" for nested quotes, as legal style sometimes requires, the opening single quote will be misdirected. But it's not hard to fix it up (e.g. leave a space between the opening double quote and the opening single quote, so Word will direct both the right way, and then delete the space). By the way, if you ever want to have straight quotes in a document without turning off the "smart quote" feature altogether, just hit ctrl-Z (undo) after you type the quote and Word curls it; that will undo the curling.

But sometimes, especially when you copy and paste from outside sources, some straight quotes make their way into the document. Having a mix of straight quotes and curly quotes looks sloppy; but a manual proofread often won't catch that.

What can you do? You can do that bulk search-and-replace of ' with ' and of " with ", but remember that this might undo any manual corrections you've made. Instead, you can replace only the straight quotes, without touching the curly quotes:

  1. Go to the Replace dialog in Word (via ctrl-H).
  2. Check the "Use wildcards" box.
  3. Replace ^034 with " (probably using Find Next / Replace several times, just so you can see everything that's being fixed, and make sure there are no glitches; but you can also just take a gamble on Replace All).
  4. Replace ^039 with ' .
  5. Uncheck the Use wildcards box, and run a dummy replacement (e.g., of text that doesn't appear in your file), so that "Use wildcards" will be turned off after that.

The cognoscenti among you might have recognized that 34 is the (decimal) ASCII character code for a double quotation mark, and 39 is the ASCII character code for a single quotation mark. ^034 and ^039 in wildcards mode refers just to the pure straight ASCII quotes, and not to the curly quotes, which have their own codes.

NEXT: Joan Biskupic's SCOTUS Analysis Lacks Any Inside Information From Leaks

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I brought up a similar issue at a law firm meeting once and the managing partner waved it away. “This makes me ill,” he said. No. Being a good lawyer means gut-wrenching attention to detail and I thank Eugene for these posts.

    1. I both agree and disagree.

      There’s definitely a value in professionalism. You don’t want to file stuff that looks messy, except perhaps in emergency proceedings. (No client cares if you need to race in to get them a temporary restraining order with unpolished papers.)

      On the other hand, the profession also worries too much about this. Judges adjudicate cases on the merits. Even when they complain about stuff, they do it in situations where the litigant has no case anyway. Poor organization and poor writing can definitely hurt a client; poor punctuation and a few formatting glitches aren’t going to.

      1. I think if a judge notices a formatting glitch it plays on his evaluation of the argument, if only subconsciously.

      2. Going to disagree with the comment “the profession also worries too much about this.”

        I get it, worrying about curly vs straight quotes seems small potatoes.

        And it is, except that once you start digesting thousands upon thousands of pages of docs a year, small things become distracting. Different font size, different paragraph spacing, jargon, acronyms, I’ve seen it all. Humans have baseline attention deficit disorder. Know how many times I’ve seen a report/presentation go off the rails because of a something like this?

        You brain is used to seeing patterns. THings tHat stick out diStract it. The nAil that sticKs out gets hammered. THink of your document like rAilroad tracks, your reader smoOthly spEEd reading through it – then blam! your reader gets derailed because of a small thing on the tracks.

        See how that works?

        Then, once people are distracted from your Big Idea, they think “How much time did s/he spend on this, really?”

        Don’t allow your readers brain to be derailed with dumb, small, formatting errors.

        1. Don’t allow your readers brain to be derailed with dumb, small, formatting errors.

          You mean like the omission of the apostrophe in “reader’s”?

  2. Of course, in some cases (like this blog post), both curly and straight quotes show up identically. When I cut and paste the text of this blog into Word, I get all straight quotes (even in the first line, which I infer should have curly quotes around the 2nd don’t). Maybe its a font feature (or bug).

    As an experiment, I cut and pasted to Word, changed the 2nd quotes to curly, then re-pasted back into this text box to see if the curly quotes would show up.

    Most professional printed materials use curly quotes (including apostrophes) rather than straight quotes, e.g., “don’t” rather than “don’t.”

    1. And now they both show up as curly lol, even though they are clearly different in Word.

      Which brings me to Zen Word Formatting 101: If you make a change in Word, and it does not show up in pdf (or print), did the change really happen?

      1. Yow — it looked good in WordPress Preview, but then they all got straightened when the post was published (and I neglected to check). I’ve just deleted the curly examples; thanks for pointing this out.

  3. Some cognoscenti might argue that 39 is the ASCII character code for an apostrophe, which differs from a locale-specific right (U+2019, ‘‘’) or left (U+2018, ‘’’) single quotation mark. [I was once downgraded for making that mistake (and for calling an asterisk a blob… and for having provably correct software generate incorrect results), but ultimately I got one point back after a well-documented discussion in 1994.]

    1. The same people who care about proper Bluebooking format.

  4. “For instance, if you want to type “‘abc'” for nested quotes, as legal style sometimes requires, the opening single quote will be misdirected. But it’s not hard to fix it up (e.g. leave a space between the opening double quote and the opening single quote”

    This is the stupidest thing. It’s been that way forever and it’s so obviously problematic. Can’t believe (actually I can, it’s Microsoft, but still annoyed) this has never been fixed.

    1. And having a wrong way curly quote looks so much worse than all straight quotes.

  5. Also, straight quotes are frequently a dead giveaway for something that’s been copy-pasted.

Please to post comments