Prime Marks

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A reader commenting on a recent post about the En Dash introduced me to a punctuation term that was unfamiliar to me: “the prime mark”:

Here’s one for you: teaching about the apostrophe versus the prime or foot mark. Same with the quote marks versus the inch marks.

I can only guess that this reader must teach students in specialized fields like mathematics, science, or linguistics, in which prime marks serve important purposes.

Like the apostrophe, the prime mark (or two or three) is placed at the upper right of a number or other symbol.

Unlike the apostrophe—which is vertical—the prime slants in the direction of the French accent aigu in the word élevé, but it doesn’t lean as far to the right.

Now that I know what a prime mark is and how it differs from an apostrophe, I plan to continue using apostrophes and quotation marks on the rare occasions I want to abbreviate feet, inches, hours, or minutes.

I can think of only two common uses of prime marks that one might see in a general publication:

1. To indicate feet and inches, as in this example from a feature in The Telegraph:

At 6’5” [sic] Gareth May is no stranger to the giant jibes. 

2. To note latitude and longitude, as in these coordinates for the city of San Francisco, California:

Latitude: 37°46′29″ N
Longitude: 122°25′09″ W

A third use that I am familiar with is to indicate hours and minutes. For example, when timing a speech, I use the notation 1’15” to indicate “one hour, fifteen minutes.” In this context, seconds don’t concern me.

Then there’s the ditto mark. Apparently it differs from the double prime in some way because Unicode defines them differently, but most people use quotation marks when they want to use ditto marks to repeat items in a list:

1 ream paper red
”       ”       ”        blue
”       ”       ”       green

In specialized contexts, distinguishing between apostrophes, quotations marks, prime and double prime may be crucial. In general usage, however, apostrophes and quotation marks work just fine.

One concession a writer can is to use straight apostrophes and quotation marks instead of the curly ones.

For all you can possibly want to know about the significant uses of the prime mark, explore the Wikipedia article “Prime (symbol).”

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6 thoughts on “Prime Marks”

  1. Maeve,

    I can’t recall ever seeing these used to denote time. The usual convention is to use colons, as in, 1:15. That can be ambiguous, though; 1:15 could mean “an hour and fifteen minutes” or “a minute and fifteen seconds.” A third group is needed for clarity, as, 01:15:00 or 00:01:15.

    Also, I strongly recommend that no one ever use smart-quotes or curly-quotes in any text that gets sent to a remote computer. These often get translated into strings of gibberish. You can turn them off in your word processor.

  2. Off the top of my head and without actually looking into this, I can think of one use in the medical field (though I am SURE there must be others), and that is R’ (“R prime”) as related to reading an EKG, when it contains a second R-wave. I would use the single-quote/apostrophe symbol on the keyboard because I have not memorized the entire ASCII dictionary, including which combination gives you the “prime” symbol. I mean, somewhere I have the whole list, but for practical purposes in terms of medical reports, using ASCII characters is generally forbidden because most electronic health record platforms don’t support them, they won’t transmit properly across platforms, etc. You end up with some bizarre squiggle or a missing character. So we have to use the apostrophe and quotation marks, or we have to spell out the word (foot/feet, inches, prime, degree, etc).

  3. I use prime marks when speaking about the length of something. Once I found out about prime marks, I switched to using them—mostly because I like to use the most correct punctuation mark as possible, even if others think it’s not useful.

  4. “I plan to continue using apostrophes and quotation marks on the rare occasions I want to abbreviate feet, inches, hours, or minutes.”

    What???? Why would you use the incorrect mark? There is a specific mark for inches and feet and it is different from the quotation mark. Your work will appear amateurish if you use quote marks to abbreviate feet, inches, hours, or minutes.

  5. @Cece Cutsforth:
    You are being silly. It has already been explained that not all (computerized) communication systems are able to use all of the “different marks”. If you do not know about the many differences among ASCII code, Baudot code, ANSI code, Unicode, HTML, and so forth, you must need to just accept the fact that there are serious incompatibilities, and that the different “codes” will cause disastrous results on the other end of the system. English or French will then look like Phoenician or Parthian.

    Curtis Manges is also completely correct about the correct way to write times in hours, minutes, and seconds, like this: 12:34:56.
    Also, Roger Bannister ran a mile in 1954 in 3:59.4, the first time for anyone under 4:00. Later on, the New Zealander John Walker recorded 100 mile runs in under 4:00 in his career.
    This is all about “four-minute miles”, and the context makes this clear.

  6. The issue of using proper punctuation is extremely important to graphic designers and typographers as each punctuation denotes different meanings. I understand continuing to use quotation marks on web where the info is usually more casual but if any of this was to end up in a book it would be done with the proper marks. You wouldn’t period where you meant to use a comma.

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