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What emphasis to use when referring to words?

I’m primarily active over on StackOverflow, forgive me if I am unfamiliar with the conventions here.

In an answer, I used the inline code backticks to isolate specific words that were the subject of the answer. Another user, a moderator, edited and replaced all my markup with italics. I don’t care for the look — it is harder for me to read. That is why I purposefully and consciously applied the style of markup that I did.

Not a terribly big deal, however it strikes me as slightly presumptuous to edit strictly to apply one’s own personal formatting preferences to another user’s post. Is this sort of editing conventional here, and if so, is there an established standard?

  • 3
    From my dabblings in MSO, back ticks to format words aren't really looked well on.
    – user10893
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 2:28
  • @simchona On MSO, one would use it to highlight function or class names within a sentence, not as formatting on sentences (not as an alternative to bold, for example). The subject at hand on MSO is code, so you use it on code to differentiate it from explanation. Here, words are the subject at hand, so again I used it to differentiate. As you can see by my profile there, I know the ropes. That's not really what I'm asking about, at any rate.
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 2:33
  • We don’t like backticks here: they look utterly abominable. You should use italics for that.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 2:41
  • Is there any reference or style guide? Who is "we"? Is it conventional to edit for strictly style here? Thanks for the -1, but can you answer?
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 2:43
  • 3
    The convention here is that which prevails in academic studies of language: words, phrases or sentences treated as subjects of discussion are presented in italics. There are, moreover, some highly regarded folks here with strong and well-informed opinions on typography whose judgment we follow. We don't do that much editing, except for ESLs and typos, but formatting's fair game, for the sake of consistency. Finally, this being Meta, the downvote represents disagreement with the opinion expressed. Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 2:52
  • @tchrist While I certainly appreciate the abrasiveness of your since-deleted comment, the statement itself didn't seem to be very logical: in addition to bold and italicized text, there are also callout frames, shaded block quotes, and innumerable other forms of layout and formatting that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand, nor is said formatting considered detrimental to the readability or credibility of the content. Quite the reverse, actually.
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 2:54
  • 6
    I think it is slighly presumptuous to label long-established community guidelines as my own personal formatting preferences.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 9:51
  • 2
    And to directly answer the other part of your question, yes, I will edit a post for a single hyphen that should be a dash. And not just here; on StackOverflow, too. And on Cooking, Gaming, Photography, and the other 80+ SE sites I am registered on. It's the norm, not an exception.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 10:01
  • If someone re-formatted my answer on SO with style markup that I don't like, I'd roll it back.
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 12:45
  • 1
    @Chris Even if it were part of the standing community guidelines?
    – user10893
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 15:51
  • @simchona No, not if, when asked, I can produce such guidelines without being derisive or belligerent. As an aside, I deleted this question because I received an answer in chat. It was re-opened so it could be edited, down voted, then closed by the same moderator that I'm referring to. It occurs to me that there's an unfriendly undertone being created here by a few users.
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 16:04
  • @Chris Reputation on Meta will not, unlike MSO, affect your actual reputation. I think that it's a usual landing spot to find the other question he linked to. Please don't take it as an attack on you--if you would like to discuss anything, feel free to ping me in chat or start a room with me.
    – user10893
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 16:06
  • @Chris The existence of edit privileges means you are wrong in your basic premise that your post is your property. It's your post only in the sense that you are the source of it ("genitive of source"). That being so, it is unrealistic for you to expect the community to defer to you on all decisions about readability. Instead you should expect the community to correct it for content as well as for style.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 17:12
  • 4
    @Chris: I did produce such guidelines without being derisive or belligerent. The only way for me to do so was to undelete this post and close it as a duplicate of said guidelines. "It was re-opened so it could be edited, down voted, then closed by the same moderator that I'm referring to" is dishonest at best. I didn't downvote your question, I didn't edit it; I have no idea what your beef is. I honestly do not. Had I deleted the question again right after explaining myself, that would have been inappropriate. This is a public venue.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 17:12
  • 1
    @RegDwighт "Correct style" is rather subjective. At any rate, the wording of my question is not "this should not happen", but rather "is this conventional, and where are the guidelines?" Observe the sole answer. Guidelines? None. Left-handed barbs at my literacy, professionalism, and equating my post to a "ransom note"? Check. Calling me names in chat? Check. Let's be clear, I didn't come here with anything other than a desire to participate. Now I feel I'm defending myself against mockery, a fruitless pursuit. I've been converted from a willing participant to regretting the attempt.
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 17:40

1 Answer 1


Yes, we often edit to polish a posting so that it looks more professional. Yes, RegDwighт♦ does a great deal of work in this regard, as he did with yours, but a lot of the rest of us help out with this too. That means fixing spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and formatting errors. Often enough, we will lightly rephrase for clarity. Think of it as getting a free copyedit.

Doing this makes the site look more appealing, because that way it looks more like a real book, not a ransom letter from a broken typewriter or a txtmsg. This is English Language & Usage, after all.

Backticks have no place here, because they are very gross to look at, and in monospace. Look at a dictionary: do you see any inverse video 𝚖𝚘𝚗𝚘𝚜𝚙𝚊𝚌𝚎𝚍 crud there?


In a dictionary, one sets an individual word or phrase in an italic face to “quote” it so that it stands out from the regular roman. It’s just how things are done in English. This is not a programming language.

  • tchrist, backticks do have a place on this site: they're a workaround to the broken search function, which won't let you search for common words like "that" or "the", but will let you search for them using "code:that" or "code:the" if and only if the words are highlighted as code, i.e. that or the.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 14:43
  • @Marthaª I am aware of the idea, but I don’t think that really works out very well.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 15:44
  • In what way does it not work out very well?
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 15:58
  • @Marthaª In many ways. First and foremost, it only works if you use a repugnant formatting mechanism, which nobody does. Just use Google, which actually works.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 16:15

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