What is a "markup language"?

markup logo

A markup language identifies pieces of a document so that another application can do something with those pieces. All document creation tools have a markup language.

In early days of text processing, some markup tools used to let you see and edit their markup code; Word and MacWrite usually didn't. The following image shows an example of how WordPerfect showed you the markup in the text.

example of the WordPerfect markup language view

Does the markup in WordPerfect remind you of something you have done recently?

a screenshot of the text in the first paragraph displayed in Mozilla Composer

All formatters need to distinguish the text to be printed from instructions about how to print;
these instructions are called markup.

  • procedural markup tells the software what to do (space down, invoke a macro)
  • generic markup describes the thing to be printed (heading, cross-reference, etc.).


Examples of markup languages

Markup has a long history. But one can understand markup by thinking about some markup languages that you are already familiar with.

HTML, the HyperText Markup Language, is an example of SGML - Standard Generalized Markup Language.

XML, the eXtensible Markup Language is much more robust, and Microsoft has embedded a lot of XML in MSWord

And some you may not have yet encountered


Word Processing Markup Languages

WordStar was one of the earlier ones. Since there was no graphical user interface at that time, it had to show you in text what it was doing with its markup, much as the UNIX text editors do.

WordStar screen view

WordPerfect was very good for text-centric documents and was thus embraced by folks creating legal documents. The ability to see and control the text markup was critical.

But Microsoft's Word soon became the dominant markup tool. Word achieves markup dominance

There are a lot of possibilities out there, but MSWord has the lion's share of the market. OpenOffice Writer may eventually become a competitor to MSWord because it is based on XML and on the Open Document standard and has most of the same features as MSWord. It may well be the best choice for many. But, for now, although not everyone likes it, MSWord is a very powerful tool.

But are MSWord and OpenOffice Writer simply word processors? And what is the difference between a text editor and a word processor?

Are they something more? Perhaps an object manipulator?


Other options

MSWord is not the only tool out there, but it is a business standard.

You might not need to use MSWord and if that is the case, there are lots of alternatives. Consider your needs:


Which program to use?

We will use MSWord to discuss effective formatting of text documents, but we will also use OpenOffice Writer to see an alternative way of applying the same principles

First, let's consider some of the structural elements:

  • Pages
  • Paragraphs
  • Text

To do so, open The Awful German Language, by Mark Twain. Copy it all, then paste it into a document so we can work with it.

Other resources


DOCUMENT MARKUP | control objects | control display | objects practice | display practice | next session