Smart Quotes

Look Smart in Print

Douglas Adams’ Guide to the Macintosh

There’s a joke I remember that went around my school playground (this was a while ago, sometime during the long dark ages that stretched from the emergence of Australopithecus on the plains of East Africa, to the release of “A Hard Day’s Night”) that went like this:

A man was giving a lecture on sexual techniques. There were, he said, eleven basic positions for sexual intercourse. “Two hundredand ninety seven!” interrupted a voice from the back. “The first of these eleven basic positions — ,” continued the speaker. “Two hundred and ninety seven,” shouted the heckler again. ” — is the one in which the man lies on top of the woman.”

“Oh,” said the heckler, momentarily flummoxed, “two hundred and ninety eight!”

I mention this for a reason [good — Ed.], which is that I want to contrast for a moment the number of features on two different word processors. One of them is Microsoft Word 3.0, billed as the most comprehensive word processor yet — powerful, flexible, configurable to the demands of any professional writing task, it takes 600 pages of manual just to describe all its features (twice, admittedly).

The other word processor is miniWRITER, a desk accessory which only has about two features, one of which Word 3.0 hasn’t got. And it’s not a negligible feature either. As a professional novelist and occasional desktop publisher it’s the first thing I looked for after I’d torn off the shrink wrap, and I discovered it wasn’t there, I cursed and swore, went out for a sullen lunch and shouted at the barman.

“Something wrong, sir?” he said. “Oh, nothing,” I said gloomily. “It’s just the new version of Microsoft Word.”

“Ah,” he said, wiping a glass sympathetically, “I expect it’s the manual that’ll be getting you down then, sir. I always tell my customers, ‘there’s nothing in life so difficult that a Microsoft manual can’t make it completely incomprehensible.’ One of my regulars — chap called Fred, perhaps you know him, little wizened grey-haired fellow, about thirtyish — told me he’d been using Word 1.05 for two years before he discovered that you could search for carriage returns and tabs after all. He just thought they’d omitted it out of spite. But no, it was in there alright. It was even in the manual. Just not so as you could find it, that’s all. It was his brother Jim as discovered it. He was doing three month solitary at the time. ‘At least give me something to read,’ he pleaded with the warders.”

“Heartless brutes, they gave him a Microsoft Word manual. He was a broken man at the end of it, but he did know which page the Special Characters search routines were on, as there’s not many as can say that. It’s an ill wind.”

“No,” I sighed, “it’s not just the manual.”

He narrowed his eyes apprehensively. “My God,” he breathed, “don’t say they left out the word count again … Oh the senselessness of it all!”

“It’s not even the word count,” I said, “though God knows that’s bad enough.”

“Six of my regulars are journalists,” muttered the barman, pulling a pint savagely, “I don’t know how they’re going to take it. I just don’t know it at all. It’s the families I feel sorry for. The ones that have to live with them at the end of the day. Tragic it is, sir, tragic.”

“Well, just think how I feel,” I said. “I’m … I’m a novelist.”

The barman frowned, not understanding. “A novelist, eh?” he said. He held the bank note I’d paid for my drink with up to the light.

“Yes,” I said. “I write a lot of dialogue.”

“Go on, sir,” he said.

“Well just think about it,” I said. “Supposing I was going to write down everything we had said so far in dialogue form, and introduce it all with a joke … ”

“What joke?” he said. I told him. He winced.

“Can you see the problem I’d have?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. I’d cut the joke,” he said.

“No!” I said. “Well maybe. But that’s not the point. Think man! Think of all those quotation marks!”

The barman frowned, still not understanding.

“Left quotaion marks and right quotation marks,” I insisted. “Remember how you get them?”

“Well, yes …” He frowned in concentration. “It’s something like — left double quote is Option Left Square Bracket, right double quote is, er, let me see, Shift Option Left Square Bracket, or Option Left Curly Bracket if you prefer, and then left single quote is Option Right Square Bracket and — er, where was I? It’s a bit complicated to remember …”

“Exactly!” I said. “And that is something that I have had to stop and work out eighty times so far just on this article! That’s considerably more often than the letter ‘g’. Eighty-two now.”

“Well, yes,” said the barman, “but it’s only profesional writers who are going to be bothered about putting in proper quotes isn’t it? Only people who write novels, or do desktop publishing or typesetting or prepare camera-ready copy, or just generally care about what their printing looks like …” He paused. “My God,” he breathed, “I’m beginning to see what you mean …”

“Ninety,” I said.

“But listen,” said the barman, urgently, “all you have to do is to type in the generic quotes and then do a quick search and replace routine at the end of the day. Well, four search and replace routines. A quote mark that follows any character other than a space or a single or double quote mark, or of course a single or double left or right quote mark …”

He looked aghast. “Isn’t there some other line of work you could try?” he said. “I hear you were once a chicken shed cleaner …”

“Believe me, I’ve been tempted,” I said. “We’re up to a hundred and two now, by the way. No, the answer should be very simple. Just put in a routine that converts quotes as you type. It just looks at the context and does it automatically.”

“But that would be insanely complicated,” said the barman, “just think of the amount of code …” He broke out in a sweat and took a soothing pull at his beer.

“About twelve lines,” I said. “MiniWRITER does it, and that’s just a desk accessory. So one way of getting round the problem is to do all your writing in miniWRITER and then paste it into Word. Makes some kind of sense doesn’t it? Or of course you can use Laser Author version 2.00, which also features SmartQuotes. It’s very easy to implement.”

“Then landsakes,” exclaimed the barman, banging his fist on the bar, “why haven’t Microsoft put SmartQuotes into Word 3.0?”

“Why is there pain and misery in the world?” I said, “Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why didn’t Microsoft even put in a word count? These things are unknowable.”

“You, sir, are a philosopher,” said the barman. “You have to be in this business,” I said and left.

That evening I was back. “I wrote it in Laser Author in the end,” I said, taking a hefty swig of Perrier, “One thousand two hundred and seven words. One hundred and twenty-eight quote marks.”

Douglas Adams is the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a ‘trilogy’ of five bestselling novels. He also is the author of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

“Douglas Adams’ Guide to the Macintosh” is reprinted with kind permission from the Estate of Douglas Adams.

This article first appeared in MacUser, September 1987.