Should we fix backticks?

I would still like to look into doing this, because it is tedious in the extreme to edit every single instance of misused backticks into italics, and because almost no one ever fixes these. Therefore we should just “do the right thing” and map backticks into <i>...</i> not into <code>...</code>. Anyone who actually needs computer code on ELU can always just use <code>...</code> directly.

Often, new users to ELU come here from one or another computer-code–based Stack Exchange site like Stack Overflow 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 Stack Exchange development 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 Stack Exchange 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 Exchange 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 Stack Exchange sites, who may not be used to the standard conventions of regular English. This is not a programming site, so it 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?) Nov 29, 2012 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. Nov 29, 2012 at 19:26
• possible duplicate of How would we like to format our keywords? Nov 29, 2012 at 20:38
• @Marthaª No, Martha, this is not a dupe of that.
– tchrist Mod
Nov 29, 2012 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. Dec 3, 2012 at 21:25
• Note that code is special when it comes to search. It might be valuable to use code formatting when discussing punctuation.
– Laurel Mod
Sep 19, 2016 at 14:42
• (1) I agree that we should discourage the use of code formatting on EL&U (and ELL), and I’m in favor of making it harder to access.  (2) I’m not sure that implementing backticks as italics is the right solution — I believe that they are usually used by new users as quotes, and I’m ambivalent about using italics (rather than quotes) for mentioning words (although I do it here, because I see that it is the accepted behavior on this site).  But I guess italics is better than monospace.  … (Cont’d) Sep 19, 2016 at 21:47
• (Cont’d) …  (3) Mark Beadles makes a valid point — some people probably use backticks (rather than backslashes) to get literal <, _, and *s in their posts.  We need to be careful not to break posts that do that.  (4) I’m also ambivalent about disallowing code formatting in comments.  But, since I believe that backticks are usually used in ignorance, rather than by intention, I guess I wouldn’t object.  (5) In your last paragraph, you say, “Nothing would be made available.”  I don’t understand — did you mean to say, “Nothing would be made unavailable.”? Sep 19, 2016 at 21:49
• Counterpoint: I just stumbled across this example where somebody used underscores between backticks in an apparent attempt to get italics inside a quoted phrase. But that's probably the exception that proves the rule. Sep 20, 2016 at 4:31
• Since you brought it up again, you might want to un-accept the answer to increase the appearance of an issue in discussion. Sep 20, 2016 at 12:50
• How much of a problem is this? Is it one post in a hundred, one in a thousand, one in a dozen...? Sep 27, 2016 at 2:49
• @MonicaCellio That's a fair question. There are a little over 4000 posts using backticks. It's a lot to clean up manually. I get the idea that it comes mainly from new users but I honestly don't know where people get the idea that code markup is appropriate for non-code. It's something that happens all the network, and I've never figured it out.
– tchrist Mod
Sep 27, 2016 at 2:58
• <i> is deprecated anyhow. Sep 28, 2016 at 1:16
• @SeldomNeedy What's your point?
– tchrist Mod
Sep 28, 2016 at 1:32
• @SeldomNeedy: <i> is not deprecated (which is a good thing because italics are used for other purposes than emphasis in English text). Oct 9, 2016 at 0:12

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 Mod
Nov 29, 2012 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? Nov 29, 2012 at 19:27
• "since we are part of a large network, consistency trumps convenience" There are many per-site behaviors on SE. Nov 29, 2012 at 22:21
• @MarkBeadles, how many of them change, rather than add to, functionality that's otherwise common across the network? Nov 29, 2012 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 Mod
Nov 30, 2012 at 0:30
• @tchrist This may be an awfully stupid question, but why are you calling it "inverse video"? Dec 2, 2012 at 12:15
• @MrLister Google be your friend: see Wikipedia. Jan 22, 2013 at 14:25
• @theUg That doesn't explain why tchrist refers to monospace as inverse! Jan 22, 2013 at 14:32
• Hey I proposed a new answer citing yours. I was wondering, if you would like to add any input, or add corrections. here is the answer. When I cite other answers, I want to make sure I interpreted the answer correctly
– user189910
Sep 26, 2016 at 23:51
• @DaMaxContent thanks for pointing that out. (Wow, this is still an issue four years later? I hadn't been paying attention.) You've accurately captured what I said. Sep 27, 2016 at 2:48

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 Mod
Nov 29, 2012 at 17:56
• @tchrist: But I do not want that: I want simple backticks. Secondly, you would mess up old questions. Nov 30, 2012 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 Mod
Nov 30, 2012 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. Nov 30, 2012 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 Mod
Nov 30, 2012 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. Jan 22, 2013 at 14:18
• @theUg That seems even worse, since then things would have the wrong semantics. Sep 28, 2016 at 3:05

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. Nov 30, 2012 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. Nov 30, 2012 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. :) Nov 30, 2012 at 18:24
• This. Give me back underlining from the last millennium and then we can talk. Until then, I will use all formatting hat tricks that are available to me. Oct 13, 2016 at 15:12

Generally speaking we should start with trying to reduce the amount of newly created posts with that kind of markup by creating awareness for the style that we do want to have on ELU.

I am pretty sure there are no statistics about how many people type the backticks and how many use the according button ({}), but the latter one is a WMD button. The functionality of this button could be enhanced. Furthermore, if one enters too many tags in the tag field a warning shows up as soon as one selects the sixth tag or leaves the field.

I would propose a similar - not as red - information showing up if one uses code markup in any way. It could be displayed as soon as one presses the {}-button or as soon as one leaves the body field of the question.

It could read something like "Mono-spaced markup is disrupting the appearance of sentences, please consider using italics", or when used in the complete line fashion, "Please consider using a quote section rather than pre-formatted text."

I am not sure if those warnings can incorporate links. If that's possible the link to a proper style guide for ELU can be included. (I know that currently there is no such thing in a single post.)

Then there is a second awareness that needs to be created. The editor awareness. Currently there is a lot of knowledge on how to edit scattered in dozens of meta posts, mostly answers, some of them accepted, some of them not, not even all of them the highest voted. As a relatively new ELU user I know that the normal way to get to know them is to have them linked by an experienced user. After that, one can favorite it and pay the good deed forward.

The preferred usage of italics on ELU is exactly such a thing. It came to my attention after one of my posts was edited (although from bold to italics) and a certain comment was provided. There is no information in the tour or the editing privileges page, or anywhere to indicate anything about italics.

On the contrary, there is even code markup on the edit privileges page on the formatting page, which is understandably full of code markup, is also no mentioning of anything like that.

TL;DR & suggestions

• Add backtick / code markup warning
• Add information about restraining use of code markup to help pages
• Create a proper edit guideline on meta (CW; Single point of reference)
• Create a proper format guideline on meta (CW; Single point of reference)

I am strongly against this for one reason only: it encourages and validates the misuse of backticks.

On the rest of the network, as it is we already have quite enough trouble training users (particularly those from certain places of the world) not to use backticks for emphasis.

The last thing we need is a site literally saying "your backticks will be converted to emphasis formatting; go ahead and have fun"!

You could remove the backtick feature from ELU entirely.

• The point on is that users are improperly using backticks for emphasis on ELU as well. The proposal is to allow this (by formatting backticks' output correctly) on new posts and to retain the use of <code></code> where it's actually needed. I don't see why that's a problem, especially since it afflicts other sites too.
– Andrew Leach Mod
Oct 8, 2016 at 20:54
• Admittedly, backticks when you do need them like in the previous comment are a lot easier than <code></code>.
– Andrew Leach Mod
Oct 8, 2016 at 20:55
• @AndrewLeach: The point is that validating the improper behaviour will make things worse, not better. Oct 9, 2016 at 8:18
• The real reason this is stupid is you'd have to edit every post that already has them. The ship has already sailed. Oct 12, 2016 at 3:06
• @CandiedOrange: Why would you have to do that? Oct 12, 2016 at 8:29
• @LightnessRacesinOrbit you change the rendering rules and you change how old stuff looks. You want to screw up all posts older than your change that happen to have backticks? Oct 12, 2016 at 8:32
• @CandiedOrange: Yes, and it is a textbook lesson in why you shouldn't use "incorrect" formatting markup for the task at hand. Those posts are already broken. This does not make them more broken! Oct 12, 2016 at 8:35

I'm also against changing how backticks are displayed. I use them deliberately for their effect and never use them for italics.

The formatting is visible 'live' beneath the editing window on the standard site, and it's certainly visible after posting even if accessing the site from a phone. Whatever people use for formatting, the effect of the formatting is easily checked.

It would be better to assume that people who use backticks do so deliberately. So long as Stack Exchange allows freedom of formatting, and provided the formatting isn't so garish as to obstruct comprehension, that deliberate choice should be upheld.

• 𝚆𝚑𝚊𝚝 𝚙𝚞𝚛𝚙𝚘𝚜𝚎 𝚍𝚘𝚎𝚜 𝚑𝚊𝚟𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚏𝚒𝚡𝚎𝚍-𝚠𝚒𝚍𝚝𝚑 𝙲𝚘𝚞𝚛𝚒𝚎𝚛 𝚒𝚗 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚖𝚒𝚍𝚜𝚝 𝚘𝚏 𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚗𝚒𝚌𝚎𝚕𝚢 𝚝𝚢𝚙𝚎𝚜𝚎𝚝 𝙶𝚎𝚘𝚛𝚐𝚒𝚊 𝚜𝚎𝚛𝚟𝚎? 𝙸 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚔 𝚒𝚝 𝚕𝚘𝚘𝚔𝚜 𝚊𝚝𝚛𝚘𝚌𝚒𝚘𝚞𝚜 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚜𝚑𝚘𝚞𝚕𝚍 𝚗𝚘𝚝 𝚋𝚎 𝚜𝚎𝚎𝚗 𝚘𝚗 𝙴𝙻𝚄.
– tchrist Mod
Sep 19, 2016 at 17:29
• There is even a third by using underscores. Sep 20, 2016 at 11:59
• There is also a button for the backticks, it's the {} one Sep 20, 2016 at 12:11
• @Helmar Thanks for the observations! Sep 20, 2016 at 15:03
• @tchrist That comment looks like a widely spaced trio of dash, question mark and full stop when viewed from my phone, hence my weird reply. Apologies for the inappropriateness. Regarding your comment - it's just a different style, no different from providing bold and italics, block quotes and indented lists. Although your question is rhetorical (at least it seems that way to me), I'd be interested to know the answer if you get one from the developers. Sep 20, 2016 at 15:16

There are cases where back ticks are quite useful. For instance, when telling someone what Google argument to use it's much clearer to say synonym pope than "synonym pope" (should the user include the quotes or not?) or synonym pope. And recently I wanted to discuss [sic], and any other sort of "quoting" would have been confusing.

Yeah, I suppose there is some <keyword>...</keyword> notation that will present the same, but it would be much more awkward to use, and blocking the actual use of back ticks in such cases is simply being punitive against those who are doing nothing wrong.

• Isn't link markdown good enough for this? Just link to the search, and the boundaries of the link define the boundaries of the search terms. Sep 26, 2016 at 20:43
• @NathanTuggy - I don't see how that would work when you're trying to teach a newbie how to use Google. Sep 26, 2016 at 23:04
• Type something like "Search for these search terms" and you're good, no? They don't have to be consciously aware of the nature of the boundary marker to make use of the visual distinction, and if you have to explain that sometimes you put in double quotes and sometimes you don't, well, you'd have to explain that anyway. Similarly, if they have no idea what a "Google" is, break down and rudely post an LMGTFY link already. Sep 26, 2016 at 23:17
• @NathanTuggy - Then they would have to click the link to see what you're talking about. (And last I checked the SE software blocks LMGTFY links.) Sep 26, 2016 at 23:23
• Hey I proposed a new answer citing yours. I was wondering, if you would like to add any input, or add corrections. here is the answer
– user189910
Sep 26, 2016 at 23:51
• @HotLicks: No, why would they need to click the link at all? The visual formatting is quite distinct. (Unless you mean the case where someone has no idea how the Internet works, but in that case, again, you're going to be stuck doing an awful lot of explaining, and the markup just isn't very important. As far as I know, LMGTFY links are auto-deleted on one flag, not blocked, but the distinction is small, I admit.) Sep 27, 2016 at 0:27
• @NathanTuggy -- If there are quotes in the search argument it's unclear whether they are part of the argument or simply quoting the example. For instance, the search argument red green "this old house" would be confusing if not done with special formatting. Sep 27, 2016 at 0:38
• @HotLicks: Yes, special formatting such as red green "this old house". Simplicity itself. If they know anything about the web, it is self-documenting — the search terms are shown clearly and unambiguously in the link formatting and in the search box if the link is followed. Sep 27, 2016 at 0:51
• @NathanTuggy - Using a link like that is confusing to the reader. They're led to believe they must follow the link to get the information you are trying to convey. Oct 5, 2016 at 21:49

I agree with both sides of this. I think that backtics should be displayed as italics, however, I think leaving the option for users to use additional formatting should be left open.

a way to do this is to leave the normal html elements to their normal display

so that <code></code> tags still display the way they are expected to.

If a user gets confused, we should provide an article mentioning the "remapping" of the backtic while mentioning that normal html elements behave the same way

I've had cause to use backticks on ELU from time to time. Not very often, because it's not a common need on ELU, but it has come up.

I'd rather that ability wasn't taken away.

It would also encourage people to misuse backticks on stackexchange as a whole.

IDEA #1: Remap "" and preserve "< code >"

Another Solution, is to add a new markdown character. As I responded, I agree that backtics should be "remapped" and the way HTML elements should be displayed should be preserved.

Why IDEA #1 is bad:

However, Hot Links brought up an issue: Using HTML is awkward, and not as convenient as regular markdown.

Also, as mentioned (by Monica Cellio), "remapping" is not good for new users coming from other SE sites, because we would be the one SE site against a million not using backtics the traditional way

IDEA #2: Remap "" and introduce double/triple backtics (""/"")

So, an alternative, is to still "remap" the backtics, but add a new markdown charater/character sequence.

Perhaps we could use the triple backtic () to represent code formatting, sort of like github does?

or even shorten it to a double backtic ()?

Why IDEA #2 is OK-ish:

This would also give us a "meet-in-the-middle" between those who think it should not be "remapped" (for good reason).

Of course, it would be helpful to new users if we mentioned in the side bar that backtics are "remapped" on this site, and new "forms" of the backtic have been introduced.

It's still not perfect, because new users from other SE sites could still often get confused

IDEA #3: Do not remap ""

Instead add an article on the side bar or provide a notification asking users to be wary of their usage of ""

Why IDEA #3 is bad:

Users will still use backtics badly on this site.

Footnote:

The basic problem this site has with backtics (just to clarify), is that there is a proper and an improper way to use them on this site.

So, the problem comes down to what is more important and less of a risk in this community? (Favors attracting new users) Confusing new users from other SE sites? (Favors turning new users into experienced users) or encouraging a "proper" usage of backtics in this community?

• I don't believe the ideas are as bad as you say. If users want to mess up their own posts with backticks around their words instead of ordinary quotes, let them go ahead. If users don't use the preview while typing, that should be a lesson to them! If they really want to use code in their messages, make it harder on them by forcing them to type <code>. I don't see the problem! Oct 1, 2016 at 7:27