Indicating the use of text formatting in ASCII text?

Subject: Indicating the use of text formatting in ASCII text?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 29 May 2001 09:52:09 -0400

Keith Cronin wonders: <<Is there some universally accepted way of indicating
text formatting when writing in a plain-text setting (such as ASCII)?>>

Yup: it's called HTML! <g> ISO and ANSI, the only people I'm aware of who
create "universal" standards, are widely ignored by people using chat rooms
and e-mail, so it's unlikely you could find any standard that's acceptable
to the majority--and if you tried to impose one, the majority would probably
revolt against this (Internet culture being what it is).

<<I see many of you adding _emphasis_ to your posts with *this* sort of
psuedo-tagging, but I don't know if this is merely chat-room tradition or
based on some formal methodology. I'm looking for ways to indicate italics,
bold, and underlining. (HTML could work, but I think _this_ style would be
more succinct and less distracting than a bunch of <I> annoying</I>

It's not pseudo-tagging: it's _real_ tagging because it's delimited and (for
a given user) largely consistent. Pseudo-tagging is using things like <g>
and <Fe> without closing delimiters. But calling it pseudo-tagging does
point out the problem quite nicely: the limitation lies in the medium, and
the ASCII medium is inherently unformatted. If you can't actually specify
bold, underlining, and italics transparently to the reader without using
formatted text and an e-mail reader that supports this formatting, then
you're limited to using some form of tagging, and there's no standard for
this. For example, although it's very logical to use underscores for
_underlining_, I and many editors and typesetters would interpret this as
italics (since that's how we learned to mark italics for typesetters in the
good ol' days). Similarly, some people prefer BOLD, whereas others prefer
***bold***. I don't see any advantage to either, though I personally give
the nod to *** because it's delimited and thus easier to use as a tag.

At some point, all e-mail software will automatically support enough HTML to
invisibly let you code tags, but not enough to include dangerous HTML
features (such as running attached scripts or executables). Then the problem
would largely go away because you'd format the same way you do in a word
processor. But until then, you're limited to manually applied tagging, and
that leaves you with two choices: stick with a standard such as HTML that
really is a standard, and that lets you open and reformat messages
painlessly in a word processor, or use idiosyncratic manual tagging that
varies from user to user and that must be manually reformatted in a word

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

Tarzan's rule of data processing: Never let go of
one vine until you have a solid hold of the next.--Anon.


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