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Dashes, asterisks and plus signs

Posted in Tools

As a designer, I enjoy details. Markdown has lots of ways of doing the same thing and this is kind of nice, but also makes me sweat.

I’ve always been of the mind that each bit of syntax should be distinct. e.g. Because asterisks are used for <strong> emphasis, I prefer not to use them elsewhere. So I use underscores for regular emphasis (<em>) and + for lists. This also nicely avoided using dashes for lists, as they’re too close to underscores for my liking: _ versus -.

Before I used Markdown, I used Textile. Textile is fine, but Markdown is better and much more widely used, so at one point I made the switch. Textile uses underscores for regular emphasis so maybe that’s why I’ve always preferred that syntax.

I suppose an underscore on each side of some text looks more slanted, like italicised text. That’s probably why Textile uses them, and why Markdown supports them.

Going against the grain

My commitment to the cause has made my life a wee bit more difficult, in that most writing apps output asterisks with + i, not underscores. So I’ve been bloody minded and insisted on typing the underscores myself, rather than using every app’s built-in keyboard shortcuts.


But italics aren’t the point. The semantics of it are simply ‘emphasis’ and ‘strong emphasis’. Not ‘forward-leaning in the same weight font’ and ‘upright letters but in a heavier weight font’.

My conclusion

You’ve got regular and strong emphasis, not italics and bold (though this is normally how it looks visually). So asterisks should be used for both: one asterisk for regular and two for strong.

You can even use three asterisks for extra strong (which would output <strong><em>content like this</em></strong>. I’m more comfortable with ***content like this*** than **_content like this_**. Plus it stops me wasting energy on whether the underscores should be on the outside or the inside of the asterisks!

Can of worms

So now that I’m not using underscores in my Markdown, does that mean I should start using dashes for lists…?

(I think I will – most Markdown writing apps insert - with the + l keyboard shortcut.)

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