Proper name and citation marks (or why underlines are not visual formatting)

Two punctuation marks that the West has never heard of

What if commas were to be banned from web pages? You might think I am exaggerating, but there are two Chinese punctuation marks that are very poorly understood, rarely mentioned by any book on CJK typography, and one of them is on the brink of effectively being banned from web pages.

They are both full-fledged punctuation marks — programmers would call them “first-class citizens” — still taught in schools and still in current use in the Chinese language. In Chinese they are called 專名號 (zhuānmínghào / zyun1ming4hou6, “proper name mark”) and 書名號 (shūmínghào / syu1ming4hou6, “book title mark”). They seem to be completely unknown in the West and have no standard names in the English language. I call them the “proper name mark” and the “citation mark” (after the CITE element in HTML).

Although they are full-fledged punctuation marks, they don’t behave like English punctuation marks. The closest CJK punctuation mark that the West understands that behaves somewhat like them is the emphasis mark.

They look like underlines, but they are not for emphasis. In English, their functions are performed by capitalization and italicization (or the double guillemet).

Neither the proper name mark nor the citation mark can be typeset 100% correctly in standard word processors (Microsoft Word, OpenOffice), nor in professional typesetting software (Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress), nor in CSS; HTML has nominal support for the proper name mark (in the form of the U element), but that support is disappearing in HTML5. To the Western eye, they are mere decorations or visual formatting, devoid of semantics; but to the Chinese people, they are semantically relevant punctuation marks as real as the comma, colon, and dashes.

The direction that HTML5 is taking is going to impose a Western-centric view of these punctuation marks, degrading them to the status of mere decoration. When even objections to this is silenced, it will be another win for cultural imperialism.

What they look like

The proper name markThe citation mark
Function Indicates that the marked noun is a “proper name” (personal, geographical, dynasty, or similar name) Indicates that the marked noun is a title of of a book, article, literary work, music, theatre piece, or other document
Appearance Horizontal Underline below the proper name Wavy underline below the title
Vertical Line beside the proper name Wavy line beside the title
Alternative forms PRC/HK form No alternative forms
  • Full-width double guillemets around titles
  • Full-width single-guillemets around titles within a title marked by double guillemets
ROC form
  • Full-width single guillemets around titles of articles
  • Full-width double guillements around other kinds of titles
Remarks The use of the proper name mark is optional and is often omitted Except in certain specialized cases (e.g., biblical references), the use of the citation mark is usually considered mandatory

Note: In current usage, when writing vertically, both of these punctuation marks appear on the left side; however, there are still books in print where they appear on the right side.


Note: If you came here looking for how to set the proper name mark in CSS, please head over to Ethan Chen’s Han typography project, which provides a CSS-and-Javascript–based solution (with graceful degradation) to the problem of proper Chinese typography on the web, or to Sofish Lin’s typo.css project, which provides a similar solution that feels more “digital native” and less “print-like”.

Spacing issues

There are two issues that affect correct typesetting of these two punctuation marks that I would characterize as unsolvable given the current state of things and the direction they are going.

Firstly, there should always be visual separation between proper name mark or citation mark and the kanji being marked. The marks should never intersect or touch the kanji when correctly typeset.

Secondly, if two consecutive proper names or titles run adjacent to each other, there must be visual separation between the two proper name or citation marks, without affecting the spacing between the kanji.

The second problem is being worked on by the W3C. However, it looks like that the first problem will never be addressed. Sadly, none of these issues are addressed by “professional” typesetting software.