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Even when a writer gets things right, the CMS remains a stumbling block. “Smart quotes are traditionally one of the things that get turned into weird garbage characters when the character encoding is set poorly,” Ford says.
The result of the variation in input from Word documents and other sources, explains Claudia Rojas, Fast Company’s website product manager, led that publication’s website (but not print publication) to standardize on straight quotes for consistency. Fast Company doesn’t seem alone, as any survey of sites quickly finds others that have made the same choice. As Greg Knauss, a humorist and programmer who has built CMSes, elaborates: “If you use [straight] ASCII quotes, you know that they’re going to survive the cut-and-paste transition that often happens with text, as well as old or broken email servers and other 7-bit indignities.”
Straight quotes are a way to play things safe, in other words—but they’re not the only solution. Wichary has taken the opposite tack at Medium, developing code to guess a user’s intent as they type and format quotes automatically. “We took it further than I originally thought was possible,” he says, and estimates the site covers about 95 percent of possible situations. “A fraction of people who type rock ’n’ roll ask, ‘Why do those point the same way?’”
Conceivably, if they wanted to, all CMS designers could employ algorithms to always make the curl happen. It’s ultimately a software choice when quotes either all get converted to typewriter versions or remain inconsistent in the final product. Because of this, there’s a temptation to read the push toward straight quotes as a principled, pragmatic stand against the needless embellishment of a curl. But Anil Dash, once the chief evangelist of Six Apart, makers of Movable Type, argues there’s a different underlying issue with the current generation of widely used CMS software. “Typography is the kind of refinement that happens at the end of a generation of CMS tech,” he says.
While it might seem that CMSes—like WordPress and others—are mature, Dash says periodicals’ systems are in the midst of continuous updates to deal with all the formats required by content partners: Facebook’s Instant Articles, Google’s support for Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), Apple’s News feed requirements, and others. “Once this stuff is nice and boring in a year or two, their developers will probably refocus on type and layout details,” Dash says.
So perhaps curled quotation marks will again have their day. Or, by then, it’s possible conventions will have changed enough that people cease to notice. Wichary says in Poland, the lack of Polish-style quotation marks („ and ”) have led the current generation to use American-style quotes and think the native ones look wrong.
Maybe periodicals, which sometimes commission typefaces or pay to adapt existing ones, will demand type designers draw better-looking, harmonious straight quotes that don’t seem pulled from typewriter typebars. Paul Ford is just plain resigned: “They sure do look nicer to old people like you and me, but frankly do they actually add any magical semantic value to a given text? Not really.”