I have noticed for years that certain emails and documents have strange characters where punctuation and other characters should be. An example is this word: yesterdayâ€™s Where the characters â€™ should clearly be an apostrophe. Why is this happening and what can I do to eliminate this occurring? I suspect that it happens more often when the originating computer system is a mac.
It’s all about character encoding.
And that simple sentence represents a bit of complexity.
Let me cover a few concepts, and throw out a few tips on how it can sometimes be avoided.
As I’ve discussed before, typically in the context of email, there are several ways to “encode” the characters – the letters and numbers and symbols – you see on the screen.
The fundamental concept is that all characters are actually stored as numbers. The uppercase letter “A”, for example, is the number 65. “B” is 66, and so on.
The “ASCII” character set or encoding uses a single byte – values from 0 to 255 – to represent up to 256 different characters. (Technically ASCII actually only uses
7 bits of that byte, or values from 0-127. The most common true 8-bit encoding used on the internet today is “ISO-8859-1”.)
The problem, of course, is that there are way more than 256 possible characters. While we might spend most of our time with common characters like A-Z, a-z, 0-9 and a handful of punctuation, in reality the there are thousands of other possible characters – particularly if you think globally.
At the other end of the spectrum is the “Unicode” encoding, which uses two (or more) bytes, giving many more possible different characters. “A” is still 65, but if we look at it in hexadecimal the single byte Ascii “A” is 41, while the two-byte Unicode “A” is 0041.
At this point, it should be clear that switching from Ascii to Unicode would immediately double the size of every email, every document, and everything else that stored text. Possible, and in some cases even the right solution, but when you consider that the majority of communications, particularly in the western world, focus on the basic roman alphabet and a few numbers and punctuation, it starts to seem wasteful.
Enter “UTF-8”, for “8 bit Unicode Transformation Format”.
In UTF-8 the entire Unicode character set is broken down by an algorithm into byte sequences that are either 1, 2, 3 or 4 bytes long. The reason is simple: the vast majority of characters in common usage in Western languages fall into the 1 byte range. Messages remain smaller, but should one of those “other” characters be needed it can be incorporated by using its “longer” representation.
All that is a lot of back story to the problem.
When you see funny characters it’s because data encoded using UTF-8 is likely being interpreted as ISO-8859-1.
Let’s use an example: that apostrophe.
First, let’s be clear as mud: there are apostrophes, and apostrophes. In reality the characters we often refer to as apostrophes could be:
- the apostrophe: (‘)
- the acute accent: (´)
- the grave accent: (`)
- the right single quote (’)
- the left single quote (‘)
(Those might look similar, different, or not appear at all depending on the fonts and character sets available on your computer. I told you this was complex. )
Each, of course has a different encoding. Let’s take the right single quote (for reasons I’ll explain below):
- ASCII: doesn’t exist
- ISO-8859-1: 0xB4 in hexadecimal
- Unicode: 0x07E3 in hexadecimal
- UTF-8: 0xE28099
I don’t expect you to care about the actual numbers there, but simply notice how dramatically different they are.
Now, what happens when the UTF-8 series of numbers is interpreted as if it were ISO-8859-1?
0xE28099 breaks down as 0xE2 (â), 0x80 (€) and 0x99 (™). What was one character in UTF-8 (’) gets mistakenly displayed as three (â€™) when misinterpreted as ISO-8859-1.
There are typically two.
Email programs: email messages can include, as part of the header information you don’t see, the type of encoding used to represent the contents of the message. The problem is that some get it wrong, or, as you compose mail you enter characters that cannot actually be represented by the current encoding scheme. In the later case the email program has to do “something”, and that may include sending the character anyway, in one encoding scheme, even though the message is flagged as being in another.
I can hear you saying “but I didn’t type in any special characters!”.
Use Word to edit your email or your web page? Then you probably did. Microsoft Word is culprit number 2.
In particular, the “Smart Quotes” option in Word will often replace a plain apostrophe (‘) with an acute accent (´) or – as we saw above – right single quote (’). When that gets sent in or displayed using ISO-8859-1 encoding, you get the results above.
The solution? Ideally, watch what you’re typing. I know that “Smart Quotes”, while nice in printed documents, causes me enough grief elsewhere that it’s one of the first options I turn off when configuring Microsoft Word.
If you can, configure your email program to send in UTF-8 encoding (many, if not most, don’t make this easily configurable).
But regardless of how you got here, at least now you’ll know why.