Succeeding QWERTY Grammatical Standards

Sometimes, the rules I adopt sound completely ridiculous when explained to someone else. At that time, I may reevaluate my position.

Back in a college English class, my professor highlighted a piece of punctuation from one of my papers. I forget exactly whether she curled my quotation marks, or elongated my hyphen-substituting-for-an-em-dash. Maybe both. I explained to her that I restricted the characters in my papers to the ASCII charset to maximize their display compatibility across digital mediums. I received an odd look from her in return. This was, perhaps, the first seed of doubt sown in my beautiful perception of “Eight-Bit English.”

The standardized width of a Roman chariot carved out such a legendary network of roads in the last millennium that roads of the same width continued across the ocean throughout the New World. Similarly, the QWERTY keyboard layout of the last century survives and influences the manner in which we communicate today.

What follows is a table mapping some symbols commonly represented in ASCII (the set of characters readily available on US, English keyboards) with their traditional English counterparts in Unicode (a much larger set of characters):

Name ASCII Unicode
Double quote " “ ”
Single quote ' ‘ ’
Em dash --
Multiply * ×
Divide / ÷
Unequal =/=
Arrow ->
Ellipsis ...

Sometimes, programs and websites are not correctly configured to display Unicode characters. Therefore, I had resolved to prefer the above ASCII replacements over their Unicode counterparts. But it occurred to me recently that I could view the situation through two lenses:

I have to admit that the argument for the simplicity of these substitutions is a pragmatic and strong one.

However… when I write something, especially on a computer, there is a good chance that my message will be immortalized. I owe the perpetuity of my miscellaneous notes to the permanent nature of the Internet and version control systems. I’ll take pride in whatever I am writing, considering the words and grammar may represent me forever.

A similar issue increasingly afflicts the portion of the population trained in handwriting. These people lament the loss of their cursive skills. As they compare their notes dated years back with the ones written today, they witness their beautiful script degenerate into lazy scrawl.

As an exercise in self respect, I will default to the truest, most proper punctuation available.

Automation

Microsoft Word was the first program to expose me to the concept of “automatic symbolization.” It would automatically convert symbols to their proper contextual, grammatical counterparts. This actually annoyed me, because sometimes the heuristics were not “smart” enough to match my intended meaning. There was also the compatibility issue previously mentioned. Once or twice, when I attempted to submit a paper to a plagiarization detection program, the symbols in the paper became garbled due to an encoding inadequacy. So, I disabled this feature.

Any programmer who has attempted to use Skype is probably aware of its tendency to “fancify” quotes. That transformation is a notorious source of syntax errors when copying code samples sent from friends and coworkers. Naturally, I disabled symbolization in Skype, too.

A similar type of automatic symbolization has been available on macOS for some time. I reflexively disabled it.

Recently the feature was added to iOS. This time my heart had changed its course. With my sense of grammatical pride heighted, I wished to give symbolization another good, honest shot. However, due to planned obsolescence, my current Apple phone will not even download the symbolization update!

To my knowledge, the GNU/Linux operating system which I use for the majority of my day-to-day computing does not provide automatic symbolization, either.

Through my struggle for and against automatic symbolization, I finally discovered another (quite obvious) course of action: manually choose the symbols I’d like to use.

AltGr

A key on my laptop which had been hiding in plain sight for years, AltGr is a modifier key specifically dedicated to efficiently entering “esoteric” symbols. In the standard configuration, these symbolizations are available:

Key Combo Produced Symbol
AltGr + [
AltGr + ]
AltGr + 9
AltGr + 0

It was relatively easy to enable AltGr keys in Debian XFCE. I configured the keyboard through these menus: “Keyboard → Layout → Keyboard Layout → English (US), Variant: English (international AltGr dead keys).”

I’ve been practicing using AltGr combinations for my quotes in chat messages, code comments, and Git commit messages. It only took a few days, and the combinations are already occurring naturally for me.

Compose

My GNU/Linux distribution also offers a feature called “compose,” which inserts special characters when a “compose key” and then other keys are pressed in succession. These useful compositions (among many others) are available to me:

Key Composition Produced Symbol
Compose, -, -, -
Compose, x, x ×
Compose, :, - ÷
Compose, /, =
Compose, <, -
Compose, -, >
Compose, ., .

I discovered the compositions in the file /usr/share/X11/locale/en_US.UTF-8/Compose. Entries in the file might look like this:

<Multi_key> <colon> <minus>      	: "÷"   division # DIVISION SIGN
<Multi_key> <minus> <colon>      	: "÷"   division # DIVISION SIGN

<Multi_key> seems to mean “compose key,” and the keys after it should be self-explanatory. The symbol itself is then previewed in quotes, and its Unicode character name is added in a comment. Sometimes the permutations of key compositions are enumerated so that the composition will be more failproof; e.g., the division sign can be entered by pressing colon and minus in either order.

I configured my compose key near the AltGr menu: “Keyboard → Layout → Compose Key.” I set my key to “Left Win,” which is the key that usually has the Microsoft Windows logo on it.

I also found it was possible to extend the set of compositions by creating a file named .XCompose in my home directory, and restarting my computer to apply changes to it. The file’s contents look like this:

include "%L"

<Multi_key> <c> <m> : "✓" U2713 # CHECK MARK
<Multi_key> <b> <x> : "✗" U2717 # BALLOT X

Other Methods

I also discovered a generalized solution for symbolization in Emacs. The key sequence C-x 8 RET will interactively call insert-char; with this function, one can enter a Unicode character name to insert at point. I would like to discover or even implement this feature in an external context, since I think it could be useful outside Emacs, too.

A friend imparted upon me a nugget of knowledge with respect to iOS. If one holds down a QWERTY key on the keyboard, similar and grammatically-useful Unicode symbols will appear as alternate options! I’ve been utilizing this feature to manually insert proper quotes and ellipsis on my mobile device.

A Truer Future

As for the remaining issue of sites and programs which still can’t render Unicode characters correctly… backwards compatibility is a deep-rooted tree. It is stalwart against the wind, but all the while, it casts a shadow over any new flower attempting to bloom beneath it. I can either accept the grammatical limitations imposed upon me by the incompetent system administrators of the world, or I can shed light on those peoples’ mistakes. When their websites are not properly configured to render modern symbology, they can bear responsibility for garbling their visitors’ messages. I will play my small part in the promotion of my language’s authentic expression. I hope that the sum total of English speakers’ efforts will result in system administrators responding to encoding issues.

Let us not succumb to regression. We should pave the way forward.