More on simple markup languages

February 6, 2006

In a reply to my WhySimpleMarkup post, Chris Wage wrote, in part:

I like the idea of a simple markup language, but the reality is that they are implemented in an obscure and often counter-intuitive fashion.

I'll unfortunately agree with this; it's one reason why I created my own for DWiki. Pretty much all of the existing wikitext dialects I look at struck me as ugly to see, tiresome to write, or both. Looking good as plain text and being easy to write in were explicit goals for DWikiText, and I left features out to achieve it. (Well, I think I've achieved it.)

(I'm not convinced that it's possible to be attractive looking, easy to write ordinary things in, and have a complete set of text formatting options. There's only so many characters to go around, at least until we start using Unicode (and down that road lies Perl 6).)

However, I disagree with Chris Wage about editors replacing simple markup languages. I feel that playing with any sort of HTML editing environment is actually make-work, even if it's faster than writing HTML by hand. And I don't think it is in many cases, because the editors are designed to be novice-friendly instead of fast for people who do this all the time.

One source of the disagreement may be that I don't think of simple markup languages as a way of making it easy for novices; I think of them as a way of streamlining the work of experts. I can write HTML by hand; I just don't want to bother.

(This means that I don't really care about standardization either, unless it doesn't cost me very much. If your goal is making it real easy for casual people to make changes in any wiki they run across, you may feel differently. Since DWiki doesn't have web-based editing, I'm already a heathen in that respect.)

PS: you can see how the plain text source of this looks with the 'View Source' link in the Page Tools entry at the bottom of here, and make your own decision about pretty or ugly it is.

Comments on this page:

From at 2006-02-06 09:55:59:

I use simple markup for all my stuff too, but I actually agree with Chris Wage that editors should be the right thing. That is, for the lightest-weight markup, like italics and boldface, it's trivial for the editor to get right and not generate hideous HTML, and you don't have to usurp symbols that get used in programming all the time and have to increase visual noise escaping them.

But, as you say, editors tend to be newbie-oriented, or they tend to be too completist, providing more functionality than we really need.

As well, simple markup still has the huge advantage of being useable from any machine with a text editor. (Although it's actually not for me because my markup-to-html converter is an offline program, unfortunately.)

-- nothings

From at 2006-02-06 10:45:59:

I totally agree with the need for a simple, clean, and elegant markup language, that looks as much as possible like "regular text".

I believe, though, that this problem has mostly been solved by ReStructured text. The invention of yet another system can only lead to confusion and unnecessary incompatibilities (even if it is marginally better that the existing ones).

Please build on the work of others, don't try to reinvent the wheel at every step.

Nick Patavalis

By cks at 2006-02-06 14:11:57:

One honest answer for 'why not ReStructured text' is that at the time I created DWikiText it didn't really cross my path; I looked almost entirely at various wikitexts (and Markdown). If I'd noticed ReSt and paid attention, I might have used at least some of its markup; instead, I mostly took from wikitexts.

The other short answer is that while its section formatting is nice, I don't like its text formatting. I also think it would collide, sometimes explosively, with writing naturally about Unix (especially its use of `), although I'm not sure; ReSt uses a bunch of magic (not always a good thing).

For my goals I would have had to augment the ReSt engine and markup anyways, since I wanted WikiWords and other internal links.

Written on 06 February 2006.
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