Often, new users to ELU come here from one or another computer-code–based StackExchange site like StackOverflow itself. Programmers who are used to using monospaced inverse video for code segments are often unaware of the typographic conventions and expectations of actual English, such as are explained in this answer.

In short, they unwittingly use word when they should be using word instead. This makes the site look ugly, so this ends up getting corrected in an edit to set the word or phrase in italic the way it always should have been.

I propose that we ask the SE dev team to kindly switch around how backticks work on ELU so that they are equivalent to any other way of specifying italics, like with stars or underscores. Then for those extremely rare occasions when actual computer code is needed, the existing <code>computer code</code> notation could still be used just like today.

This would not affect indented “code” paragraphs used in tables. It would only be for inlined backquoted material.

This seems like a win-win solution. It makes the site more new-user–friendly for programmers coming from other SE sites, it saves time, it makes ELU look better and better conform with standard typographic expectations, and it doesn’t remove anything that we are currently able to do.

Should we do this? Why or why not?


Two points.

First, I should add that I have no idea whether this is even doable. The style sheets and programming for converting markdown that they use here might well too closely tie together these two input forms:

  1. <code>text</code>
  2. ˋtextˋ

. . . for this proposal to be possible at all. I don’t know.

From the point of view of the Stack programming team, doing this may be trivial, it may be easy, it may hard, it may be impossible. I have no idea which of those applies. Obviously if it is impossible, it cannot be done, and if it is hard, probably is not worth doing compared with other things on their to-do list. But in the event that it is possible and not too much trouble, I think we should consider doing it.

Secondly, please note carefully that this proposal is not suggesting that we mess with the first form at all, nor with the indented code paragraphs used for tables. It is simply to map the backtick markdown form into <i>text</i> in the resulting HTML, instead of into <code>text<code>. It provides another way to get at italic, since that is what it is usually (but not 100% always) used for.

Those people who for whatever reason really want do inverse-video monospaced text would still be able to access that functionality without any new programming being required, since it already works as <code>text</code>. Nothing would be made available. It is just to help new users from programming-related SE sites, who may not be used to the standard conventions of regular English. This is not a programming site, so should not look like one.

+1, and if you added something to the FAQ regarding the preferred formatting convention, it would go a long way. It would also help of the FAQ used the same convention that users here would like to adhere to: english.stackexchange.com/… (see the backtick use to isolate phrases inline?) –  Chris Nov 29 '12 at 17:59
+1 But should the backticked display be the same as ordinary 'starred' or <i> italics or a different face? I've seen linguistic texts which use a sans-serif face for utterances, contrasting with the base serif face. It's not always pretty, but it's not always ugly either; and it does make the argument easier to follow. –  StoneyB Nov 29 '12 at 19:26
possible duplicate of How would we like to format our keywords? –  Marthaª Nov 29 '12 at 20:38
@Marthaª No, Martha, this is not a dupe of that. –  tchrist Nov 29 '12 at 22:19
Another thing to consider is that HTML, such as <code></code> (<code>which renders like this</code>) does not work in comments, so there would be no way to use an inline code block inside of a comment. –  Peter Olson Dec 3 '12 at 21:25
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The issue is that people are confusing semantic marking with display presentation.

Markup (and markdown) constructs are for indicating semantic types like emphasis using *asterisks* and strong emphasis using **double asterisks**. The presentation of those styles as italic and bold is a style question. Except for HTML SE's poor support for underlines, I suppose we could have just as easily chosen u̲n̲d̲e̲r̲l̲i̲n̲e̲ for the display of emphasis. Likewise, SE could switch all italics with bolds and it should have no effect whatsoever on the meaning of anyone's content.

The backtick is just another one of these semantic markers, a "code" or "literal" type. But part of its semantics is the implication that markdown is literalized, <em>like here</em>. On a coding-oriented forums the code type is displayed as highlighted monospace because that's useful to coders. On an English-language-oriented forum code could be displayed as bold italic or whatever is useful to that community. But it would still have to support literalization/escape of markdown characters inside code blocks.

However, one real issue is that people use the code type for non-semantic reasons; i.e., they are trying to control how their content is displayed -- taking advantage of the monospace or highlight to simulate tables, for example. People shouldn't have been doing this, but SE really offers no alternative. Changing code will break all these. Not saying that's bad, though.

HTML has very good support for underlines, and I dearly wish this site allowed them, but TPTB are allergic to underlines, apparently. –  Marthaª Nov 30 '12 at 18:02
Also, changing the display of inline code markup will not necessarily break the display of block-level code, because the former is coded as just <code> tags, while the latter uses both <code> and <pre> tags. –  Marthaª Nov 30 '12 at 18:06
@Marthaª Thanks for the clarification of how block-level code is done, as well as how the underline support is really a SE thing. Note the trick I had to use to make it work up above. :) –  Mark Beadles Nov 30 '12 at 18:24
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I am against. For one thing, I really need code formatting sometimes, as in Proto-Indo-European roots, where Markup (or what is it called?—asterisks and such) messes up my words. Then there are other uses. There is no serious problem (just looks) and removing any kind of functionality will not only mess up older questions but also limit what we can do, in both foreseen and unforeseen ways, as above.

But you could still have <code>code formatting</code> if you want it. That would not be going away. –  tchrist Nov 29 '12 at 17:56
@tchrist: But I do not want that: I want simple backticks. Secondly, you would mess up old questions. –  Cerberus Nov 30 '12 at 0:24
Show me some postings that use it in a reasonable fashion, and if I cannot find a dozen that use it wrong for each of those, I will reconsider. –  tchrist Nov 30 '12 at 0:28
@tchrist: I don't care about proportions. Even messing up a single question is not worth this aesthetic change. And you know very well how impossible it is to search on this website. –  Cerberus Nov 30 '12 at 2:29
Every single new posting with monospaced inverse-video that should have used italic is already broken from the get-go. It makes a ridiculous amount of work for us. I would like to fix that. –  tchrist Nov 30 '12 at 3:33
Consider this. We could agree to use backticks for monospaced script (with or without background), if people so desire. The point is for it not to be formatted with <code></code> tags, but with something like <em class="monospaced"></em> for semantics’ sake. –  theUg Jan 22 '13 at 14:18
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If our users never used other Stack Exchange sites, maybe, but since we are part of a large network, consistency trumps convenience. It would be better to address this through education (like in the FAQ).

It would also be reasonable to ask SE if we can add to (not alter) the markup help on a per-site basis, which would allow us (and any other SE site with similar needs) to document our local formatting conventions.

But the problem is that our users do use these programming sites that have things like cmptr->cmsg_len = CMSG_LEN(sizeof(int)) in them. If they were simple users of English, this problem would never arise, because English does not need inverse-video monospace text any more than it needs <BLINK> text, so such folks wouldn’t use it. And there would still be <code>i += 3</code> available for those rare times that you really think a bit of inverse-video monospaced text for computer code is actually applicable here. I believe I have used it once or twice in more than two years — that’s all. –  tchrist Nov 29 '12 at 19:06
I've never used it. But my point is that users of Stack Exchange expect certain markup to behave a certain way. Not all markup applies on all sites most of the time, but that's orthogonal. Your proposal is to change the behavior of something that already exists with an installed user base. Saying "but you can do it some other way" doesn't change that. As an ELU user, how would you feel if you went to post on UX and found out they'd redefined * or __? You could click on the little buttons to get the markup you were looking for, but would you find that acceptable? Would the average user? –  Monica Cellio Nov 29 '12 at 19:27
"since we are part of a large network, consistency trumps convenience" There are many per-site behaviors on SE. –  Mark Beadles Nov 29 '12 at 22:21
@MarkBeadles, how many of them change, rather than add to, functionality that's otherwise common across the network? –  Monica Cellio Nov 29 '12 at 22:29
@MonicaCellio Please explain to me of what use monospace inverse video is when discussing the English language without resorting to computer programming code. –  tchrist Nov 30 '12 at 0:30
@tchrist This may be an awfully stupid question, but why are you calling it "inverse video"? –  Mr Lister Dec 2 '12 at 12:15
@MrLister Google be your friend: see Wikipedia. –  theUg Jan 22 '13 at 14:25
@theUg That doesn't explain why tchrist refers to monospace as inverse! –  Mr Lister Jan 22 '13 at 14:32
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