Most people still use typewriter-style quote marks.

Somewhere in the 1990’s, a bunch of people hammered out the International Standard ISO/IEC 10646, which was surely a good thing.

I became aware of this standard when at one time long ago I upgraded my Linux system and got the latest fonts. Suddenly all left quote characters and right quote characters looked different. They no longer matched.

Markus Kuhn, who designed the new Linux fonts that were on my new system, warned:

Please do not use the ASCII grave accent (0x60) as a left quotation mark together with the ASCII apostrophe (0x27) as the corresponding right quotation mark (as in `quote’). Your text will otherwise appear rather strange with most modern fonts (e.g., on Windows and Mac systems). Only old X Window System fonts and some old video terminals show ASCII 0x60/0x27 as left and right quotation marks, while most modern systems follow the ISO and Unicode standards instead. If you can use only ASCII’s typewriter characters, then use the apostrophe character (0x27) as both the left and right quotation mark (as in 'quote'). If you can use Unicode characters, nice directional quotation marks are available in the form of characters U+2018, U+2019, U+201C, and U+201D (as in ‘quote’ or “quote”). ¹

Modern computer fonts look really great. Often it’s like reading a book on the screen. Except, almost twenty years later, still very few people use quote marks that match the design of these fonts. Instead they use the straight apostrophe or the double straight quote mark. Unlike the regular letters of most fonts, which are designed with nice print shapes, these standard quote signs look like they are from an old typewriter. In context they look horrible, especially when the font is a serif font.

So why don’t people use the “nice directional quotation marks” that Kuhn talks about? Simple, those signs are not on the keyboard. In fact, most physical keyboards strangely still emulate the keyboard of a typewriter.

For a while software solutions were created to solve this (like Microsoft’s “smart quote marks”), but those solutions exist only in specific programs. There is no global solution. In fact, with the introduction of lots and lots of new devices, those “nice directional quotation marks” often have been harder to find or use. For a long time, my Android keyboard did’t even have directional quote marks. And while some time ago Android’s English keyboard introduced them as an option that shows them when you long press the apostrophe or the double quote mark, hardly anyone seems to use them. (My multilingual English/Japanese keyboard didn’t receive this update. If I would want to type a directional quote mark, I’d have to change keyboards first, which is not convenient.) On the PC, with its physical keyboard, no such solution exists. For some reason, the layout of the US computer keyboard has hardly changed in decades. The only new key on the keyboard that I am typing on right now, is a key with Microsoft’s symbol on it.

How do I type the directional quote marks in this text? When I type in gvim I use hotkeys that I choose myself. Additionally I use the standard Linux hotkeys that work in gtk applications (on how to activate the latter: see below).

Change the keyboard

Changing the current keyboard layout is not straightforward, because almost all the symbols that are available now, have been adopted into programming languages. That doesn’t leave much room for change. Nevertheless, changing the keyboards, both physical and software keyboards, seems to be the only way to get “nice directional quotation marks” widely adopted into our otherwise beautiful screen fonts.

Type hard to reach symbols in Linux

A lot of Linux distros seem not to have defined a compose key by default (including my distro, Slackware). That is probably because keyboards have different layouts, but why not make an exception for the rather language agnostic US keyboard? Well, I don’t know, you tell me. It seems we lack a sane standard for keyboards.

Anyway, step one is to define a compose key. You can even do that temporarily on someone else’s box. Find a key on your keyboard that would be a convenient compose key (it should be a key that you don’t use to type symbols directely). I use the Menu key. Open a terminal and type xev. Press and release the key you intend to use, and note the number after keycode. On my keyboard, the Menu key has keycode 135. Close xev and enter the following command (using your own chosen keycode):

xmodmap -e "keycode 135 = Multi_key"

Now you can type lots of fancy symbols, including directional quote marks.

Press and release sequentially Multi_key, the first key and then the second key of a key combination.

Multi_key < ' or Multi_key ' < gives ‘
Multi_key > ' or Multi_key ' > gives ’

Multi_key < " or Multi_key " < gives “
Multi_key > " or Multi_key " > gives ”

Multi_key , " or Multi_key " , gives „

A few examples of other keys. Lots of combinations are quite predictable.

Multi_key ' e gives é
Multi_key ` e gives è
Multi_key " e gives ë
Multi_key / o gives ø
Multi_key - u gives ū
Multi_key 8 8 gives ∞
Multi_key v / gives √
Multi_key y - gives ¥
Multi_key c = gives €
Multi_key ^ 1 gives ¹

A complete list of compose key combinations lives in the folder of the locale you are using, for example /usr/share/X11/locale/en_US.UTF-8/Compose. Use your own locale (type echo $LANG) and create a list with:

cat /usr/share/X11/locale/en_US.UTF-8/Compose | grep Multi_key > Multi_key.txt

On my system it has 4041 combinations, including lots of weird ones (like the Korean alphabet).

You can make your Multi_key selection permanent by simply adding the command xmodmap -e "keycode 135 = Multi_key" to your .xinitrc or another startup script that your system may use.²

  1. ASCII and Unicode quotation marks