The macroscopic electric polarization of a crystal is often defined as the dipole of a unit cell. In fact, such a dipole moment is ill defined, and the above definition is incorrect. Looking more closely, the quantity generally measured is differential polarization, defined with respect to a "reference state" of the same material. Such differential polarizations include either derivatives of the polarization (dielectric permittivity, Born effective charges, piezoelectricity, pyroelectricity) or finite differences (ferroelectricity). On the theoretical side, the differential concept is basic as well. Owing to continuity, a polarization difference is equivalent to a macroscopic current, which is directly accessible to the theory as a bulk property. Polarization is a quantum phenomenon and cannot be treated with a classical model, particularly whenever delocalized valence electrons are present in the dielectric. In a quantum picture, the current is basically a property of the phase of the wave functions, as opposed to the charge, which is a property of their modulus. An elegant and complete theory has recently been developed by King-Smith and Vanderbilt, in which the polarization difference between any two crystal states-in a null electric field-takes the form of a geometric quantum phase. The author gives a comprehensive account of this theory, which is relevant for dealing with transverse-optic phonons, piezoelectricity, and ferroelectricity. Its relation to the established concepts of linear-response theory is also discussed. Within the geometric phase approach, the relevant polarization difference occurs as the circuit integral of a Berry connection (or "vector potential"), while the corresponding curvature (or "magnetic field") provides the macroscopic linear response.