Strong is wrong

Early mistakes are the hardest ones to fix. From the start HTML supported semantic markup, which is one of its selling points and in the same tradition as SGML. The early HTML had markup typical for its use of the day (code, dir, samp, kbd…). Today elements more like byline or nav might have been picked instead. But formatting elements like i, b, or u were of lesser value, because they gave information of what the phrases looked like, not what they were.

Emphasis, or em, was an obvious element. This is a very common component in spoken and written text. The most common case of text marked up as italic is emphasised text. So far, so good. But seeing that italic text could be represented as emphasis, what about boldface? This was how the strong troll came to be. strong was wrong on just so many levels. Unlike em there was no pre-existing “strong emphasis”, and there was no typographical rule that it should be represented by boldface (itself a typographical bastard, but that is a different story). While italic text is commonly a case of emphasis, boldface properly used is not. Furthermore the proper way to represent stronger emphasis would be to nest the em. Now em-in-em can be considered a little tacky, but it would be the proper way to represent nested emphasis.

More importantly having strong and em too conveniently mapped b and i, which graphical web editors have used to map italic to em and boldface to strong. This has in effect turned em into an alias of i and strong an alias of b, much like s and strike are aliases, and using em and strong makes people feel good about themselves for no good reason.

The problem with semantic markup is when semantic elements are used for their incidental effect. blockquote for instance has commonly been used for indentation purposes. Whether strong or b is used matters not a whit, but by this pairing the actual semantic element em is being mixed up, and there is no way to tell if an em is really an emphasis element, or an italic string misrepresented.

From an implementation point of view the strong element is trivially simple to implement. It only matters if you care about semantic markup, and the difference between real, useful semantic markup like the h1h6 versus the pseudo-semantic markup like strong.

From early on

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  1. Interesting. So, is a strong tag evil?I’m not so shure, thought…I found this related info:When semantic markup goes bad articleSemantic difference between EM and STRONG and when should the y be combinedEmphasis in context versus overall highlightingSimpleQuiz › Part XIII › Empholdics

  2. I would rather consider strong misguided. It encodes what nobody knows what is and what nobody needs. Extra emphasis, which is on the level of using multiple exclamation marks but if you want to you can do it, can and should be done by nesting em. It would be better to look at what inline boldface has been used to represent when used right. Some of these functions would make eminent sense to represent in markup, for instance bold for highlights or key words/phrases. Web Applications 1.0 has proposed an m element for that purpose.

  3. Funny you mention the WA draft. What do you think about their idea of nesting strong?A quick scan of my own site shows that I use STRONG myself on lots of pages. Mostly to mark the word ‘Note:’ or a complete ‘Note’, sometimes for key words and phrases.BTW, I’m not a real fan of italic text on the web – in several stylesheets I use em {font-style:normal; font-weight: bolder;}

  4. strong is much clearer defined there than anywhere else, but strong is still wrong. As mentioned I am all for nested em. The genius element is m (and no u or b should not be used instead). I have proposed key but m has brevity going for it. I really dislike inline use of boldface except when highlighting, it is almost as disruptive as blink, so I am opposed to the use of it in the style sheets. Additionally it is disturbing when emphasis is boldface but other text strings marked up with italic is still italic, so at least I would change the rule above to:em, i {font-style:normal; font-weight: bolder;}

  5. If you dislike boldface, make use of a persistent user stylesheet:* {font-weight: normal !important;}The last comment of yours explains more than the entire article, in my opinion. it is a personal aversion, which you seem to attempt to mask somewhat in the article itself. Let me note that strength of emphasis lies solely in the domain of the text author, and it is not for you (or me) to say whether he was right in his judgement or not. Emphasis, abd by extension its strength, is extremely important for expression. Whilst a selection of one or more words is one element of a set of techniques available to the author, it is far from exhausitve. if you stop for a while and think about it – literary works of old are proof enough that punctuation ot sentence structure is at least as effective a method of emphasis indication as are the mudane selections which seem to be the subject of debate here. Some language are less extensible in this respect, some are more, as grammars and vocabularies range from strict and unimaginative to almost completely free. I would furthermore venture to say that emphasis (possibly auto-) detection is one of the skills those who read gain over time, and take pleasure in, moreso as it is often deliciously debatable.Whether I were to use –strong– as emphasis, or nested –em– elements, matters nought, since both of those are crude, inadequate, inextensible, and primitive tools to convey something that is best conveyed within the content itself. And again – bringing ==bold== into discussion on emphasis is bound to produce discussions which are sterile from the outset. regards,Joe Q. Hyphen

  6. Nice article. But what I want to say about semantic markup is who needs semantics? Does visitor see any difference between tags? Noup! Does search engines look at them? Noup! And You mentioned why – software automatically puts STRONG and EM instead of B and I, so many of them are missleading. So, why do we need them?

  7. Originally posted by Moose:And again – bringing ==bold== into discussion on emphasis is bound to produce discussions which are sterile from the outset.—But Rijk started it! I agree though, talking about typographical effects would lead us on to a sidetrack. A nice sidetrack with plenty of good views, mind you, but a sidetrack none the less. While I can understand the desire to do some remappings (e.g. making u bolder instead of underlined), it should be done with care and preferably not at all. If I merely had been against boldface as a typographic effect I would have been against the b element, as well as the font-weight property. b and i do their job just fine, with no pretension of being what they are not. em is a useful semantic element with a fairly clear if not fully intersubjective meaning, the only gate-crasher in this collection is strong.

  8. Originally posted by Aux:You mentioned why – software automatically puts STRONG and EM instead of B and I, so many of them are missleading. So, why do we need them?You may be right, both em and strong may be past saving (and the latter would not be worth saving anyway). By now common custom, especially among WYSIWYG programs, has made b and strong equivalent, i and em equivalent, much as by definition s and strike are equivalent, and de facto abbr and acronym. If em is doomed, what killed it? Its evil brother strong. If there had been no strong, em would just have been another element that happened by default to be displayed with italic type. That means that when people used em you could be pretty sure that they meant the phrase had an emphasis, and not just were looking for some italic type.


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