I've been trying to formulate a question for quite some time, and I haven't been able to come up with a better way to describe it. I hope it's not too confusing.

There are a number of ways to use markup languages to convey information like emphasis in text files. Stack exchange uses 'Markdown' for example. In this case, adding * (in Markdown) or <emph> (in HTML) is simply called 'markup' I suppose, but is there a name for this? That is, making something stand out in the text, be it logically like "emphasis" or explicitly like "bold" or "underline", etc. The only thing that comes to mind is to emphasize, but (to me at least) that implies stressing the word, not what you're doing with the text to achieve that result.

This has been bugging me for quite a while, I hope someone can help me out here.

  • "Visual emphasis"? Commented Feb 11, 2011 at 8:28
  • 1
    It’s probably not worth bumping this over (and it’s too small an edit for me to make anyway), but, as a note to readers who may be confused: the HTML tag is <em>, not <emph>.
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 21:06

4 Answers 4


"Markup" is the generic noun for annotations added to a text, whether done with a pencil or with various electronic means, and whether or not they have anything to do with formatting. Even readers' underlines can be called "markup".

The corresponding verb is "to mark up".

"Formatting" refers specifically to arranging parts of a document into pages or screens. When you make your window narrower, the document gets "reformatted", but none of the "markup" changes at all.

"Markup" originally involved annotating several kinds of things on paper: spelling or other corrections; things like breaking a paragraph in half or adding a heading; and giving formatting instructions such as to set a portion in italics.

In modern publishing those tasks are commonly separated:

  • An author or "encoder" identifies parts of a document by "what they are" (this bit is a footnote, 2nd-level heading, bibliography entry, list item, command name, etc). This is called "descriptive" or "declarative" markup.

  • Someone decides how each kind of thing should be formatted in a print or online edition. Publishers call this their "house style" or similar names.

  • Some person or program then applies the design to the objects, via "formatting" and "typesetting".

Computer-based document systems progressed similarly: Many early ones had commands only for formatting effects: "change font", "shift left margin", "switch to bold", "skip a line", etc. Of course, similar combinations are used over and over again, so systems soon provided named sets of instructions for the common kinds of things.

Eventually (starting with Brian Reid's "Scribe" system), systems began to allow authors to ignore the "how" of formatting almost completely, by just picking "kinds" (often called "styles"). Many authors just do this, while many others do manual formatting, especially for short documents.

"Markup" is ubiquitous, but "formatting" isn't always part of the picture at all. Visually impaired readers may use a screen reader, and objects such as "heading", "footnote" etc. are communicated in entirely different ways. Similarly, a search engine cares little about fonts, but may care a great deal about which parts are the document title, author name, or bibliography.


How about simply to format? You are formatting the text with Markdown. Or how about to style? CSS is called like that for a reason, it's all about styling.

  • I am used to Drupal, which uses imput formats. To pass from filtered HTML (the default format) to Markdown would mean to change format.
    – avpaderno
    Commented Feb 11, 2011 at 9:53
  • Another related term from CSS/HTML: text-decoration.
    – Patrick M
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 15:48
  • Using Markdown (or other markup languages) isn't really formatting the text. It is identifying distinct kinds of components in the text (list item, heading, paragraph, etc), which later may be formatted. If the reader is visually impaired, there is no "formatting" in the usual sense. If the consumer is a search engine, again the use of the markup is quite different (headings may count extra, something tagged "author" or "price" may be special,...).
    – TextGeek
    Commented May 18, 2019 at 15:31

Dictionary.com defines markup, amongst other things, as

detailed instructions, usually written on a manuscript to be typeset, concerning style of type, makeup of pages, and the like.

So I would say that the best word for this is "markup".


"To typeset" might be too general, but it could do the trick.

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