New syntax draft

Initial draft of revised wiki syntax floated

A proposal was formulated last week to revise the markup used by the MediaWiki software, which could possibly also be promoted as a global standard for wiki projects. Considerable discussion followed and the project received a mostly positive reception.

Last Friday, developer Lee Daniel Crocker announced on the wikitech mailing list that he had completed a draft version of a new wiki syntax and solicited feedback about the project. The effort was spurred by a March suggestion from Jimmy Wales to develop a general syntax standard, potentially not just for Wikimedia Foundation projects but wikis in general (see archived story).

Some questions were raised and alternatives suggested to some aspects of the new syntax, but the feedback was generally positive and showed enough support to warrant continued work on the project. Wikimedia Chief Research Officer Erik Möller said, "this is an excellent proposal with a lot of potential."

Details of the proposal

One of Crocker's emphases was to eliminate instances of markup based on single characters, using two or more characters to prevent any possibility that legitimately necessary uses might trigger wiki markup. Thus the first available level of section headings would be based on ==two== equal signs rather than =one=, and external as well as internal links would be based on [[double brackets]] rather than [single brackets].

Another proposed new feature is the addition of line breaks without requiring either an empty line or the use of HTML. Some kind of syntax for this purpose has long been desired, particularly from users wishing to render poetry or song lyrics. Crocker's draft suggests using two backslashes ( \\ ) at the end of the line in order to force a line break.

Perhaps the most significant changes involve styling (such as text formatting) and syntax that results in content from another file, such as an image or template, being incorporated into the page. The draft syntax uses {{curly brackets}} for styling instead of templates, and also employs distinct shortcuts for each type of formatting (such as asterisks for **bold text** and slashes for //italics//), rather than various combinations of straight apostrophes. Meanwhile, inclusion of images and templates would be handled with <<angle brackets>>, which would in turn allow regular brackets to link to images instead of requiring a single colon as a prefix. These elements were the most debated aspects of the proposal.

Changes are not likely in the immediate future, and work remains to be done in terms of discussing the proposal with developers of wiki software other than MediaWiki. Crocker indicated that he plans to continue to develop this into a formal proposal, after which it would still be necessary to write the actual code for the new syntax, along with code to convert the old syntax to the new.

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