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A word about Markdown

Markdown is a practical language, built for site owners. Like open source scripting languages it was implemented before it was designed. Unlike some open source scripting languages, however, it has not seen many official changes since its release. This means that the official spec hasn't gained things that are needed for people besides site owners to use it, like HTML sanitization. Many Markdown projects have filled in the gaps, though, most notably PHP-Markdown, Stack Overflow, and GitHub.

GitHub made some additions to their Markdown library for programmers and for users of their site. These include emoji, issue linking, and syntax highlighting.

These changes were not well received by everyone. Some were disappointed that they invented syntax rather than use what PHP-Markdown had. Others thought they should call it something other than Markdown. In general these changes delighted users of GitHub, though.

Slowly but surely an inter-language Markdown community that sanitizes HTML by default, allows strikethrough, and supports neat features like codeblocks is emerging.

If you're a Markdownista who believes in progress, times are good.

Code Blocks in READMEs on GitHub

GitHub decided to take the explicit route on syntax highlighting. This is a different choice than what Stack Overflow took. It takes away the burden of detecting the language from Markdown processors.

This is a good, but not optimal, decision. Since a syntax highlighter is already a sophisticated piece of software, having Markdown processors detect the language isn't a major pain point. What would be a problem is a README author having code presented with the wrong highlighter and no way to fix this. This would arguably be worse than not highlighting syntax at all. It would be better for GitHub to detect the language automatically, but only when no language is specified.

The result is that in order for code to be syntax highlighted, it must be fenced. The standard code block in Markdown starts with four spaces. Here is an example JavaScript factorial function indented with four spaces, as per the markdown spec:

function factorial(n) {
  return n < 2 ? 1 : n * factorial(n - 1);

See? It isn't highlighted. Now here's one fenced with triple-backquotes:

function factorial(n) {
  return n < 2 ? 1 : n * factorial(n - 1);

Much better, if you're in the majority.

Please Fence!

If you like syntax highlighting and you don't object to Markdown being extended to be more useful, please fence.

If you respecfully disagree with GitHub's decision to extend Markdown and wish they'd call it something else, please pretend it's something else and fence.

If you're using Markdown for your README because it's popular on GitHub, please fence.

If your README is most often read on GitHub, please fence.

I have a much easier time scanning a README if syntax highlighting is enabled.

Expanding this movement

This is a rough draft, so if you have suggestions, please make them. Please make a pull request; if I like it I'll merge it in.

Please, when you wish a README was in Markdown, if you have spare time consider letting the author know, and possibly sending a pull request. Provide a link to this document or a similar resource if you're not sure the author knows about this. If you're hesitant to link them to this page because of its content, please create an issue and let me know why.

One reason not to fence code blocks is laziness. A bot that sends pull requests could help with this. It is for this reason I created an organization, though I haven't yet allocated time to do it. If you'd like to help, please let me know!

Improving the situation in the future

There are a lot of great text formats besides Markdown but I prefer Markdown and so do many others. It is my hope that Markdown continues to evolve, and I think it will. One thing I haven't yet seen that Markdown needs is a commonly-used lint tool. I'm not the first person to think so.

Another thing that's needed is for more tools to support GitHub-flavored markdown. Specifically it seems that Java is lacking in this area.



To the extent possible under law, the authors have waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this work.

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