A recent discussion on linguistics.stackexchange revealed some differences of opinion about the proper use of backticks on the site. I have been instinctively using code formatting to separate object language from metalanguage even if the object language is a natural (not computer) language. Other users of that site contend that phonetic transcriptions are not code and should not be formatted as code.

I have seen a similar question on meta, and some of the answers appeal to the underlying semantics of where HTML <code> tags would be appropriate. I think that makes sense for Stack Overflow, but it is too restrictive to be a network-wide guideline. There are lots of Stack Exchange sites that have nothing to do with programming, but have inherited the interface and editing conventions that grew up around a community of programmers.

Why should those other communities use code formatting only for code, filenames, terminal output, etc. (which they rarely if ever include in their questions/answers)? The code formatting mechanism is already implemented, documented, easy to use, highly salient visually, and in fact is not even described as "for code only" on the editing help page -- it's called "preformatted text", and the example is a recipe for cocoa.

Is there some other reason I should be avoiding monospaced text to distinguish tʰɹænskɹɪpʃn̩z ʌv spitʃ saʊndz from the text used to talk about my transcriptions of speech sounds?


To summarize the debate that is scattered among a few different pages, there are several different claims being made regarding this issue:

  1. how a given Stack Exchange community uses the backtick formatting mechanism is up to the community to decide.
  2. monospaced type on a gray background is ugly.
  3. monospaced type on a gray background should not be used for inline emphasis.
  4. monospaced type on a gray background is a good way of separating object language from metalanguage (similar to the use-mention distinction discussed in this answer from the English Language & Usage community).
  5. the website for linguistics.stackexchange should emulate linguistic books and journals as closely as possible.

To me at least, it seems clear that point #1 is the most important issue to resolve here. If it is indeed true that it is up to the individual communities to determine backtick use conventions, then opinions on points #2, #3, #4, and #5 are moot from a network-wide perspective, which is the perspective this question asked for.

  • 6
    I'd say that's really up to the other site you're talking about. While the backticks are universal, each site uses them (or actively avoids them) for different reasons.
    – Makoto
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 2:49
  • @Makoto: But each site doesn't get to rename them or the formatting that results from them from "code" to something that makes sense for that site. Commented May 24, 2015 at 13:02

1 Answer 1


Use /phonemics/ and [phonetics], not kʰɻæp̚<

The correct way to use IPA is to use slashes to delimit broad phonemic transcriptions and to use square brackets to delimit narrow phonetic transcriptions.

So for example, the word peel might be:

  • Phonemically /pil/ for all speakers.
  • Phonetically [pʰiəɫ] for some speakers.

Notice that no 𝚞𝚐𝚕𝚢 𝚖𝚘𝚗𝚘𝚜𝚙𝚊𝚌𝚎 is needed nor useful under the standard transcription scheme. You will never find it used by scholars, who will always carefully indicate the difference between /phonemics/ and [phonetics].

Do Not Use Code Spans/Blocks for Emphasis

As explained in the question on Inline Code Spans should not be used for emphasis, right?, one is strongly discouraged from using code spans as a form of emphasis. The weird off-colored monospace looks horrible and is completely inappropriate. This point is repeated in the question on Color of certain elements in Main site doesn't match up with the rest of the page.

  • 1
    as I said in the comments to the answer linked to above, "Users of this site seem to be a mix of professional and armchair linguists, language teachers and learners, and the curious. I don't think it's realistic to expect them all to know or understand the difference between phonetic and phonemic transcription." There are also cases where the -etic/-emic distinction is tangential or irrelevant to the question asked. What then?
    – drammock
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 8:20
  • 1
    @drammock Then just use /slashes/ as delimiters and be done with it. Again, no reason whatsoever to use 𝚞𝚐𝚕𝚢 𝚖𝚘𝚗𝚘𝚜𝚙𝚊𝚌𝚎 for such matters.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 11:42
  • Too much ugly loaded language in here for me. Use reasoning, not CRAP to make your point. The correct way is to just plainly state your answer. No ugly loaded language is needed nor useful. The weird off-coloured language looks horrible and is completely inappropriate. Commented May 24, 2015 at 13:08

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