Minor Semantics

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Microsoft Word now puts its wiggly line under two spaces in a row. A lot of people are happy, and I’m happy that they’re happy, because maybe “semantic authoring” in a small sense is taking root.

Microsoft Word wags its finger at two-spacers. Image from: https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/24/21234170/microsoft-word-two-spaces-period-error-correction-great-space-debate

The period-space signifies the end of an idea and the beginning of the next. Nice proportional fonts will help to visually separate those ideas, and if they don’t, they should. We shouldn’t have to hold the hands of the system to get the output we want, just as we no longer need to feed in punched cards to change memory registers.

I learned proper word-processing when I was writing a book and wanted to do so efficiently. I learned from the Open Office user manual, which started by educating me about named paragraph and list styles. The most important thing when writing down ideas was to simply define what kind of block I was writing – a header, some body text, or a list – and I could leave all the formatting decisions to later.

One time I was talking with a freelance editor / academic writing tutor who disapproved that many of his students used spaces for formatting. “I always do it properly”, he puffed, “with tabs!” I didn’t mention the named styles – it didn’t seem worth it.

I’m really happy now that so-called semantic writing1 is taking off. It might have started properly with Markdown, but the big UX leap to bring this to a mass user base was with Medium and its barebones approach to blogging: no font-fondling, just a floating bar to pick between headings, lists, or quotes. Then Dropbox Paper extended the approach, and now many tools from wikis to note apps do the same thing. I really feel it helps us all to focus on ideas and perhaps improve the base level of design as well.

I’ve just switched to WordPress and the new block editor does this fairly well. Is text alignment really the third button I should see on the mobile app though?


People into “semantic technology” (i.e. graphs and linked data) as such don’t recognize this use of the term. But I think it’s viable; there’s a continuum from extremely unstructured text – using spaces and inline font settings for “meaning-focused” formatting – through this cleaner tagging of “what’s this phrase” to the kind of machine-friendly annotation that tells you not only what kind of text it is, but what it’s about.

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