This question is motivated by https://ell.stackexchange.com/q/32122/8712. Since only one formatting tool should be used for each purpose, and the quote and I exhausted all the tools, I resorted to grey code formatting. Yet I'd welcome, and so would like to enquire about, more aesthetic, pleasant alternatives.

Please mind that I'm not asking about a vast (gaudy, lurid) colour palette. I was thinking of a few simple, comfortable colours like green, brown. Also, in a long post, does anyone find italics hard to pinpoint?

Anyone should feel free to cite examples profiting from colour use, in addition to these: https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/17796/8712,
https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/37222/8712 https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/29790/8712 https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/14664/8712

2 Answers 2


I fully support the idea of having some proper formatting options for highlighting. That is to say, the ability to add some background color, like blockquote does, but inline and with greater flexibility. Unfortunately, I don't think that SE will be implementing it any time soon.

I edit code formatting out of posts when I see it (unless it's used for actual computer code or ASCII drawings or tables), often leaving a comment to this effect:

Please don't use code formatting for highlighting, quotations or emphasis, as it is difficult to read and ugly. Use blockquote, bold or italics instead.

I do this for the following reasons:

  • I personally have difficulty reading it; the monospaced font is quite jarring and distracting to me.
  • These two ELL meta posts discourage it: one two
  • The long standing sentiment on MSE is that code formatting should be only for code or drawing things in ASCII.

Also, in a long post, does anyone find italics hard to pinpoint?

Absolutely. Bold is a much better choice when the emphasized text is buried in a large paragraph.

Since only one formatting tool should be used for each purpose

This is the only part I disagree with. There's no need to limit a particular formatting type to only one word in your post. Go ahead and put bold on everything you want to ask about in the paragraph you're quoting; nothing wrong with that! If you're worried that it will be ambiguous, you can use <sup>1</sup> in order to demarcate the words or passages of interest. The only other thing I'd say is that if you add formatting or footnote marks to a quotation, please mention what you've added in your post.

Here's the formatting help page; it's worth a peek. In general, these things are for emphasizing, highlighting or quoting text:

  • Italics
  • Bold

    • Blockquote
  • Bold italics

These things are not for emphasizing, highlighting or quoting text; rather, they're for what they're named after:

  • Code
  • Keyboard
  • Headers

  • 3
    We have no reason to reserve code for code. After all, we don't post code on this site, so that would be a rather silly rule! What we should use code for is (1) when we need monospace text, (2) for the use-mention distinction when italics would be unclear, as when talking about symbols like ! or ?, or (3) when we need to format unlike things differently from one another and we've run out of other options.
    – user230
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 19:35
  • We do in fact get questions involving code though they are not at all common. You're also completely ignoring the fact that I explicitly included monospace needs in my post. Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 0:27
  • 1
    I do find code useful for quoting in comments though because of the mini-Markdown formatting limitation. It's clearer what the intention is than italics and it doesn't emphasize the quote as strongly as bold does.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:45

While ELL is still in Beta we are limited to the formatting possibilities of standard SE Markdown. When we graduate we will be given the opportunity to design our own stylesheet, but I don't imagine we'll be privileged to introduce new Markdown notations. I suspect we will be limited to selecting an alternative realization for the Code marker—perhaps underscoring? or small caps?

(On the other hand, if we lose the monospace font we will no longer be able to build evenly spaced 'tables', which are occasionally very helpful; SE has explicitly stated that they have no intention of supporting HTML tables, ever.)

I do agree that the realization of italics in the standard format is unfortunate, and I hope that on graduation we find a font and treatment that 'scrunch' the text less.

In any case, I do not believe that we should seek a larger typographic repertory. In my experience, putting a large number of tools in the hands of typographic amateurs is an invitation to visual and literary incoherence: a contemporary equivalent of the multiple underscores and exclamation marks we are fond of mocking in Victorian letters. We have all the resources of the English language with which to make our meanings clear; surely, on a site dedicated to mastering those resources, those should be sufficient?

Among whom I number myself: I now regret most of the typographic ingenuities I introduced into the Perfect Constructions Canonical Post. Someday when I have four or five hours to spare I will go back and remove them.

  • Agreed - you only need to look at the mess that Word documents and Powerpoint presentations generally are to know that typesetting is best left to the professionals.
    – jimsug
    Commented Oct 30, 2014 at 11:02

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