asterisks as bold or italic? (another push)

Timothy Binder lists at
Wed Mar 31 00:40:06 EST 2004

On Mar 30, 2004, at 3:40 PM, Jelks Cabaniss wrote:

> Except that at least as of the last few years, "normal" emphasis is
> *primarily* indicated in emails with asterisks.  Sure, some people 
> still do
> it with _underscores_  -- I used to myself some years ago.  But look 
> at most
> email lists and newsgroup posts today -- they're not doing a one-on-one
> mapping of codes to formatting as italics and/or bold, they're just
> *emphasizing*.

That's a good point. I will admit that I tend to use an asterisk to 
emphasize things in email. OTOH, if I make the distinction of having to 
strongly emphasize something in email, I don't think that **double 
asterisks** really qualify, I can't think of many cases where I've seen 
that. If I want to strongly emphasize something, I will usually 
CAPITALIZE it, so it really stands out. (Lawyers do this all the time, 
too -- just check any software license agreement. :-)

My argument was primarily based on typographical & pre-existing usages 
grounds, going back to the days of the typewriter. I suggest following 
long established conventions (e.g. underline == italics), unless there 
are good reasons to break them. In this case, I'm not convinced that 
there are sufficient reasons. Then again, I'm not the one that needs 
convincing -- John is. That's why I'm trying to post an argument to do 
so. In the end, John's decision is final to me, as I hope to adopt 
Markdown for my nonprofit's web site. I won't be the only user & I 
don't want others having to use nonstandard syntax. That's why I'm 
pushing for a change to the standard, before it goes gold.

In that vein, I would like to address a couple of John's counter 
arguments. This is something I should have done in my initial email.

> reStructuredText, however, agrees with me:

Underlines aren't even used for emphasis here -- they're used for 
headers. Only using a single character for emphasis means that you 
_have_ to make the distinction by using multiples of that character. In 
Markdown, you're already giving the option of _ and *.

> The actual spec for Setext says that **double** asterisks are
> equivalent to strong emphasis, but uses ~tildas~ for italics. (But
> neither of the two Setext-formatted newsletters I read, TidBITS and
> MDJ, use tildas for emphasis.)

This can be used for both arguments. On the one hand, Setext says 
double characters "**" are stronger than single characters "~". On the 
other hand, Setext also makes a distinction between types of 
characters, meaning that "*" is stronger than "~". Also, in reviewing 
the specs, the underline is reserved for underlining text (imagine 
that! :-). However, on the web, underlining is semantically equivalent 
to a hyperlink and should be avoided for that reason. (Typographically, 
the underline is considered something to be avoided as well. The 
guideline is use italics instead.) Also, regarding the use of italics 
in Setext, they are very restricted: "only single ~italic~ words are 
allowed for visual-clarity reasons". Why? I'm not sure -- perhaps 
because italic fonts weren't very readable on computers when Setext was 

> I also searched through an awful lot of my email, and what I found
> is that both _underscores_ and *asterisks* are in wide use, but both
> styles tend to be used to imply normal word emphasis. E.g., if you
> stop thinking about "italics" and "bold", and think instead of
> "emphasis" and "strong emphasis", I think it's very fair to say that
> _this_ and *this* both imply normal emphasis.

Visually, I think that *this* stands out more than _this_, thus I 
wouldn't agree that they are both normal emphasis, on a visual basis.

Basically, I disagree with the existing choice of * and ** over _ and * 
on both a visual and historical basis. Some other existing usage calls 
for it, though, so I can see the argument for using it, especially if 
John's trying to follow the reStructuredText standard as closely as 
possible. Ultimately, it *is* John's call, as it's his code. I just 
hope I made some cogent arguments that will open him up to reexamining 
the issue.

You know, I just had a thought about the adoption of "*" over "_" or 
even "~" in general usage, even though it's visually stronger. It's 
just plain easier to type!

Timothy Binder                                Director, President-Elect
Philadelphia Science Fiction Society             <>
      Upcoming Guests: Warren Lapine, James Morrow, John Passarella

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