Markup Languages

So there is nothing on TV and I am catching up on my blog reading. Eugene Wallingford had an interesting blog post from a conference (I think) he is attending. One of the things that came up, sort of on the side, was markup languages like runoff and troff. These were markup languages used for creating documents in the days before WYSIWYG word processing software. I used runoff and variations of in for a while at DEC. Later DEC developed a tool called VAX Document which processed a markup language called SDML – standard document markup language. I wrote a lot of documentation back in the day using SDML which was processed through VAX Document.

It was sort of like HTML is some ways but with a whole lot more options. If fact is was really a customized set of markup tags for creating computer documentation. It was particularly good at documenting DCL (Digital Command Line) instructions which is how most command line programs were run on the Digital operating systems.

One had to create their files using a text editor of course and enter tags manually. We were not near as sophisticated then as we are today. And as with any coding effort there was often debugging as nesting was wrong or end tags were forgotten or there were typos in the tags. The end results usually looked very good though. We were still getting used to proportional fonts back then and without WYSIWYG editors it was hard to manually format things. Markup languages and the processors that worked with them were much easier. Relatively speaking of course.

We had a markup language for specifying DCL commands. This language was used to help create code that would be used by programs for parsing command line input. For the life of me I can’t remember what that markup language was called. And I used it a lot. While I was in grad school I actually wrote a sort of compiler to input that markup language and then automatically create SDML for documentation purposes. I had to manually add some detail of course but I was guarantied that all of the commands, options and parameters that would be supported by real code were in the documentation. It was a big win for me.

The next step was to have it create more stub code that I could use in my programs. There were a lot of library calls one had to do and this also saved me a lot of work. Especially since I could create code stubs automatically in VAX BASIC, PASCAL, FORTRAN, COBOL and C++. I was using all of those languages on a regular basis at the time.

Eventually HTML came along and with previous experience with several other, more powerful, markup languages it was pretty easy to pick up. I still retain an appreciation of a good markup language. HTML is getting weird in some ways and going beyond a simple markup language. Simple is a valuable thing in a markup language. Oh well. XML is being used quite a bit these days but I am not sure that people whose whole markup language experience is XML and HTML can really understand the beauty of good markup like we old-timers. But then I may be full of it too.

2 Responses to “Markup Languages”

  1. Matt says:

    It’s funny you mention this. I’ve been interested in *simple* markup languages lately. I run a couple private instances of MediaWiki, and use it for notes, to-do lists, etc. Once you learn the markup, it’s easy to have == Headings ==, * Bulleted Lists, ”italics”, ”’bold”’, etc. (It does support HTML for those who don’t think lots of single quotes are the way to mark bold or italic text.)

    What I like about those simple languages is that it frees you from really thinking about formatting. It provides the tools I need to format a document, without allowing me to get side-tracked trying to figure out what spacing between lines looks optimal. I tend to do that in Word or when using CSS to style an HTML page. I *could* do that with the output of something formatted in a basic language, since it’s ultimately converted to HTML, but I’d have to change a global stylesheet, not my document’s particular layout.

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