I have been called out for using blockquotes for the wrong purpose. For quick reference, here's the blockquote in question (taken from this answer):

Screenshot of blockquote in question, being used for a summary

And this is the request that was made about it:

"That paragraph […] is rendered in quote blocks. That means it's a quote. Where did you get the content from? You should cite your sources. If it's not a quote, it should not be in quote blocks. (If you want Markdown to be extended with more formatting options, request them on Meta.) Thanks."

I personally agree with the commenter. Just like the semantics of HTML tables have been "abused" over and over again for purely aesthetic purposes, so have I abused blockquotes. (I wanted the answer summary to be visually offset / stand out from the remainder of my post.) The problem is, Stack Exchange's Markdown doesn't offer any other formatting option (apart from code blocks) for indenting some text or putting it in a "box", so blockquotes are what I have been frequently resorting to for this purpose.

On the other hand, the Markdown help doesn't explicitly forbid the use of blockquotes for text other than longer citations. In fact, while it explains how blockquotes can be produced, it doesn't state at all when and for what blockquotes should be used:

Screenshot of Markdown editor help for blockquotes

(The same goes for many other formatting elements, btw.)

I can only guess that this is because the meaning of blockquotes was assumed to be obvious; and because one of the (if not the) first Stack Exchange sites (Stack Overflow) was directed at programmer types, who are perhaps expected to be familiar with HTML (which also has something called <blockquote> with explicitly defined semantics).

Therefore I am asking:

  1. Is there a demand for a formatting element that would be appropriate whenever paragraphs of text should somehow stand out from the main text flow; be it for prologues, preambles, asides / side notes, remarks, postscripts, footnotes, etc.?

  2. And if so, is this demand big enough that Stack Exchange's Markdown should have a formatting option for it?

  3. And if so, is the existing blockquote formatting (>) appropriate, or any other existing formatting, or does something new have to be added?

In either case, I believe the Markdown editing help should be more explicit about the intended semantics of blockquotes (and possibly of other formatting elements). If blockquotes have a clearly defined use case, then it should be stated explicitly. If not, then the help text should include something along these lines:

You can use > to put one or more text paragraphs in a block that visually stands out from the main flow of text.


Examples of how blockquotes are being used:

Below are some examples of how blockquotes are being used in the wild.

First, let me apologize for using so much content that I posted myself. I don't want to advertise my own posts; it was simply a quick way for me to locate some examples. If anyone has other examples, feel free to edit (and make me look less biased ;).

Also, take note that I am not judging the following examples; you may find that some demonstrate the "intended" / "proper use" of blockquotes, while others may be examples of an "abuse" of blockquote.

  1. Actual quotations / citations (perhaps the intended implicit meaning of blockquotes), e.g. here, here, and here:

    Screenshot of an actual blockquote / citation


    Another screenshot of an actual blockquote / citation


    Screenshot of an actual blockquote / citation

    (Note that some of these include only the quoted text, while others also include a full or partial bibliographical reference.)

  2. The Stack Exchange engine itself uses blocksquotes to mark duplicate questions as such, and link to previous questions, e.g. here:

    Screenshot of an example of blockquotes being abused by the Stack Overflow engine to mark a possibly duplicate question

  3. As a meta-statement about the post itself, e.g. here and here:

    Screenshot of a blockquote used as a preamble


    Another screenshot of a blockquote used as a preamble

  4. For side notes, remarks, etc. that aren't considered as important or relevant to the post as the non-quoted text, e.g. here:

    Screenshot of a blockquote used for a side note

  5. Similar to the above, for postscripts (P.S.), i.e. text that was added to the post later on; e.g. here:

    Screenshot of a blockquote used for postscripts

  6. To cite the source of a non-blockquoted blockquote, e.g. here:

    Screenshot of a blockquote containing the source citation of a quote

  • Nice post.​​​​​ – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 1 '15 at 15:36
  • I have often abused <sub>subscript</sub> in the same way. At least it's not confused with quoting, but conceptually it may be even worse. In any case, this is a great idea. – mattdm Mar 1 '15 at 23:54
  • Does it really make sense to use the same formatting element for text that should stand out more (like the summary in your example) as well as text that should stand out less (remarks, side notes)? – Reto Koradi May 1 '15 at 14:41
up vote 2 down vote accepted

In the beginning there was GML which tried to eschew presentation-based formatting.

GML begat SGML, but the takeoff didn't occur.

SGML begat HTML but the bastard offspring did not think about following in the parent's footsteps and soon devolved into presentation markup. It wasn't whitespace-sensitive.

SGML begat XML, yet it was still too wordy to be used for quick editing.

Then there appeared BBCode, and it was easier to use but one still needed to type [quote]Life is hard[/quote].

Then Gruber and Swartz begat whitespace-sensitive Markdown, and that's what we are using now. Trading whitespace independence for sparing users a bunch of keystrokes proved a successful strategy.

(In the meantime HTML drifted back to semantics of HTML5, but the verbosity precludes people from using it widely. Writing a blog post in Markdown is hands down easier than going the full HTML5 route.)


To recap: Markdown is a semantic markup syntax. We use hacks such as <sup> and <sub> because Stack Exchange "doesn't want to implement footnotes". We still draw (semantically correct) tables in LaTeX arrays on math-oriented sites or in code blocks because Stack Exchange doesn't want them (TM). But that doesn't mean we have to abuse the markup to express our thoughts.

Blockquote.

Reference: So-and-so, John. Frobnication manual. San Diego, 2015.

Note: this is just a note. You can do it in small font or in italics if you want, but people will understand you just right if you simply place a Note: before it. Same for Postscriptum and Side notes.

Don't use Markdown to express your idea of presentation 'cause some day folks at SE may change the presentation layer and your post won't look the same. Stick to the semantic standard. After all, your posts here should be about the essence of the problems you (as a Question writer) or others (as an answerer) experience.

  • I find it quite ironic that you're saying "in italics" and format it as emphasized text. If the SE guys really do change the presentation layer, "in italics" might no longer appear in italics. :-) – stakx May 2 '15 at 21:18
  • That being said, I can live with the idea that SE Markdown formatting is meant to transport primarily semantic meaning. If that is truly so, then at least the formatting help should be reworded in a way that says so in clear and unambiguous terms. – stakx May 2 '15 at 21:21

Note: In my answer I use quotes to separate my main sentences from the examples, not to show that those examples should be always in quotes.


Personally I don't see anything wrong with placing tldr or preamble in the quote, and I don't think there should be some special formatting for them.

If using quotes not to quote cause some confusion, you can place a hr (---), like this:


It is a perfect way to split your answer in some parts, mark the end of a preamble or tldr, if they are reasonably short.

The fact that you quote from somewhere shouldn't be placed in quotes, I think. I'd say that it doesn't need special formatting at all:

Source: http://example.com

Or you can apply italics to it, as it is already shown in your question.

Quotes themselves should be in quotes, of course :D

For remarks and notes, apart from applying italic (sometimes it is even enough and no more styling needed), you can use subscript and superscript (<sub>text here</sub> and <sup>text here</sup>).

E.g.:

Note: please don't use it anymore as it was deprecated

Another way to format notes is just to make them in the form of footnotes1 and separate the main answer from the footnotes using, again, hr.


1 - this is sort of footnote, it is written using double sup tags: <sup><sup>1</sup> - this is sort of footnote</sup>

P.S: If you use footnotes, it would be strange to place postscripts after those footnotes. I'd suggest you to place them right before them. They also don't need special formatting, just bold P.S..

  • About your suggested use of --- (aka <hr/>), do you mean that they should surround a non-quote blockquoted text, or just any regular text? – stakx Mar 1 '15 at 13:42
  • 1
    @stakx I'd use just regular, non-block-quoted text, as I pointed in case if placing tldr in block quotes cause the confusion (though I never run in such cases when someone comment on my answer: "If you wrapped your tldr in block quote, then you quoted it from somewhere"; I consider those comments to be somewhat strange) – nicael Mar 1 '15 at 13:46
  • This entire answer focuses on how to use Markdown to change how your post looks, which is the opposite of what you should be doing and the entire point. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 1 '15 at 15:37
  • 1
    @LightnessRacesinOrbit: It might not be so much beside the point as you think. Let me make an example. When comparing Markdown to HTML, does ** simply mean <b> or <strong>? (The former makes a statement about how text should be rendered, while the latter makes a statement about its intended meaning.) I don't know whether there is a definite answer. Some people might see Markdown simply as a formatting tool, while others also attach semantic meaning to each of its various formatting options. As long as we don't know what the majority thinks, this appears to be a valid answer. – stakx Mar 1 '15 at 15:57
  • 2
    @stakx: You forgot the third and most preferable option, which is people seeing Markdown as solely a semantic markup tool. The way SO decides to render posts is then largely irrelevant. In this day and age of the semantic web, LaTeX, separating form from function, I'm kind of surprised that this isn't more of a given! – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 1 '15 at 16:05
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit: You're right, I forgot that option. And it would be a good one... but: The question remains how the majority of Markdown users perceives the issue. – stakx Mar 1 '15 at 16:11
  • 1
    @stakx: It's not a public vote. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 1 '15 at 16:27

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