Universal syntax for Markdown

Fletcher T. Penney fletcher at fletcherpenney.net
Wed Aug 10 21:40:22 EDT 2011

A few caveats:

1) I am responding, at least in part, since I (or at least my software) was mentioned

2) I've had a very nice meal, a nice relaxing evening in the mountains on vacation, and a few glasses of wine

3) I can only speak for myself, not the authors of other Markdown derivatives/forks

I agree with some other points that have been made by others --- Gruber seems to be quite content with the current feature set and performance of Markdown, and not inclined to pursue it further. If he's happy, then I don't see any need for him to put further effort into development.

After being introduced to Markdown, it took me about 2 seconds to realize the beauty and elegance that it offered. It took me a little bit longer, but not that long, to realize that it had not been taken as far as it could go. To my knowledge, I was the first person to apply the idea of the Markdown syntax to an output format other than HTML. I then also tried to tie together the improvements made by Michel Fortin in terms of syntax additions. For me, MultiMarkdown offered the ultimate blend of syntax features and output format flexibility.

This is not the first time that the call has gone out for "one Markdown variant to rule them all" to be developed. I've even written, and then deleted, such a call myself. IMHO, the fatal flaw is that those of us capable and inclined to create a derivative of Markdown to scratch our own itch are happy with the variant we have created. We don't see a problem. We added what we needed, and we're content.

In the final analysis, it doesn't matter to me if the other authors of Markdown variants follow my syntax or not. They have their own goals, needs, and opinions that don't necessarily match mine. If you think that Markdown works best for you - great, stick with it. If MultiMarkdown offers features that you find useful, use it. If something else is better, by all means go with it.

That said, I am perfectly willing to tweak the syntax of MMD to mesh with some consensus if it were to exist. But, there is a limit to the features I would be interested in incorporating. I've been asked to include many syntax additions that I have said no to, because I thought they would end up detracting, rather than contributing to, the overall success of MMD. Some may agree with what I've done. Many others will disagree. That's fine.

Where I do think consensus would be helpful is in the features that are *almost* identical across implementations. Early on, I made changes to my footnote syntax to match what others were doing. There is value in such changes to improve compatibility across implementations. That said, I don't want to edge towards the "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality that plagues Word, for example. Gruber has made it pretty clear in the past that he is not a big fan of the syntax additions that I have made for MMD (though, strangely he seems supportive of PHP Markdown Extra.... ;)

My proposal, then, is to develop a "standards body" to create a core set of syntax additions, edge case resolution, and definitive test files to define "Markdown 2.0". Obviously, it would need a different name, but I am too lazy to think of one right now. My personal opinion is that this new standard would include fewer, rather than more, extensions to the core Markdown standard. I think it should be defined in a fairly rigorous manner, to avoid some of the ambiguity present in the canonical Markdown.pl (I think John MacFarlane's peg-markdown work was pretty good in this regard). I think some of the core features would include:

* metadata
* footnotes
* tables
* complete test cases/tools

secondary features could include:

* citations
* definition lists
* automatic cross-references/labels
* math extension
* image/link attributes

All this said, however, I think an important consideration for this discussion is:

What benefit do the authors of current Markdown variants gain from the effort required to agree on a standard?

Being realistic, I'm pretty busy with my day job. I'm even busier throwing in maintaining MMD and now trying to release a new application. I've put in countless hours on a project that has in total provided me with the equivalent of a weekend or two working at my day job in donations from the generosity from those who have themselves saved countless hours of their own time. Clearly I'm not doing this for the money. My guess is that other Markdown authors aren't doing it for the money either.

I think we all do it because we care. We see the beauty and utility in this approach to writing, whether it be for the web (Markdown) or other document formats (MultiMarkdown). For progress to be made on an official "next version" of Markdown, it's going to take a cause that offers some benefit to those of us who have worked so hard during the past few years to contribute our own changes and additions.

Again - my own $.02, and may not even be worth that much....


Fletcher T. Penney
fletcher at fletcherpenney.net

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