Q&A: Weird characters in a newsletter

Q I get a newsletter sent by email to me each week, and sometimes I read it on my iPhone, sometimes on my Mac. Whilst it looks fine on the iPhone, when displayed on my Mac it contains bizarre characters. These look as if ‘smart quotes’ are active, but have not been correctly interpreted. Is this my fault, or the author’s?

A This issue rests not with you or your Mac, but with whoever prepares these emails.

They are probably composed using a word processor such as Microsoft Word, with smart quotes turned on by default, and the contents are then pasted into a text format message. This embeds extended ASCII characters in place of the normal codes for single and double quotation marks.

However the email that you received has left those extended ASCII characters, despite declaring itself as having TEXT/PLAIN content. Your Mac therefore displays the characters literally, and does not render the smart quotes, whilst the software on your iPhone tries to be smarter and succeeds. If they are going to send these emails out as plain text, then the smart quotes should be converted back to plain ones before they are embedded in the message.

Comments Technically, this is a (minor) instance of mojibake: a dislocation between different text formats. The best solution by far is to work in Unicode text, which accommodates smart quotes, accented characters, even emoji. Unfortunately, for many computer users Unicode appears as accessible as Kanji or cuneiform.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 11, 2011.