What creates a good wikitext dialect depends on how it's going to be used

October 2, 2015

One of the things I've learned over the course of writing DWiki and then using it here on Wandering Thoughts is that what makes a good wikitext is partly context dependent. In this case, 'context' means 'what sort of things the wiki is going to be used to write about'. This comes about because of two things; the rule that a good wikitext dialect doesn't get in your way, and the limited supply of special characters that we have available to use as markup characters. Good wikitext markup is short, distinctive, and uncommon in your regular text. And of course what is common and uncommon in your text can depend on what you're writing about.

There are two corollaries of this. The first is whether something is a good or bad wikitext dialect for you depends on what you're going to use it for. I feel strongly that there is no more or less universally good wikitext dialect (and probably won't be until we embrace the use of uncommon Unicode characters for markup). The second is that what looks like a good wikitext dialect can turn to bad (or at least 'not as good') if what you're going to use it for changes over time.

As I've mentioned before, a glaring example of this in DWikiText here is the _ character, which is used to create monospaced computer text. I originally created DWiki to write sysadmin documentation. This has the twin features that you frequently want to mark off literal computer input and output (conventionally set in monospaced) and _ is a relatively uncommon character in things like command lines and so on. Thus it seemed to make good sense to use _ as a short, unobtrusive, yet visually distinctive marker of such text. Then I took up blogging with DWiki and started writing about programming and code; of course _ is extremely common in identifiers, and this causes heartburn for both me and commentators (errant _'s is in fact one of the most common errors here and I've committed various hacks to try to sidestep them in common cases).

(This origin is also why bold is created with ~~ instead of the shorter single ~. Single ~'s occur periodically when you write about Unix paths. Also, looking backwards I have to admit that it turns out that there is a certain amount of sysadmin things that involve _'s, because people put them in file names, kernel parameters, and so on as word separators. Linux /proc is full of them, for example. This makes _ a somewhat worse choice than it seemed to me at the time, although I still don't know what I'd have used instead.)

(This is something that I've sort of written about before as parts of other entries but that I now think is important enough to give a full entry to, just to make it explicit and visible.)

Written on 02 October 2015.
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Last modified: Fri Oct 2 02:33:10 2015
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