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What is a Markup Language?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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A markup language is a combination of words and symbols which give instructions on how a document should appear. For example, a tag may indicate that words are written in italics or bold type. Although the most common and most widely used markup languages are written for computers, the concept of a markup language is not limited to computer programming.

One of the oldest, and at one time the most commonly used, markup languages is that which is used by editors to instruct writers on how something should be written or how it should appear in the final draft of a piece. When done in longhand, the editor generally uses symbols and written instructions in an ink color different from that of the author; usually blue or red. This practice has been replaced in many areas thanks to the widespread use of computers, but teachers and sometimes journalists are still required to know proper editing markup.

The most widely known markup language today is likely hypertext markup language (HTML). This is the language used by web browsers to display websites. Coding can be typed by hand and uploaded through a word processor, or created in one of many web design programs. There are new variations of this language which have updated codes and rules. Dynamic hypertext markup language is an example. Multiple codes can be strung together and can be used to create a style sheet to ensure that a website has a unified appearance.

Many word processors also use some type of markup language to change the appearance of text within the document. This is generally not seen by users of the program, but takes place behind the scenes. These types of languages are created by computer programmers and are typically used only by the computer.

The main things most markup languages have in common is that they dictate the appearance of text or full pages and they are not usually seen by the end user in the finished product. In HTML, only the web browser reads and deciphers the meanings of certain codes. For instance, the <b> tag instructs a browser to display all text that comes after it in bold text. To end the bold text, the following tag is inserted: </b>. Although many people will never use a markup language themselves, they will likely use a product or read a web page that implements their use.

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Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Apr 03, 2011

@alisha-- I'm not an expert but I do some markup language for my personal site. As far as I know, all of those are universal languages for markup. SGML stands for "Standard Generalized Markup Language," HyTime is something like "Hypermedia Time Language" and DSSSL is "Document Style Semantics and Specification Language."

I think all of these came out because there were too many markup languages and one markup language could only be used for one program and not for others. It became necessary to have a universal language for markup that could be used for most if not all computer programs. But as you can see there are now multiple "universal" markup programs which really defies the whole purpose of having a universal language I think.

By discographer — On Apr 02, 2011

Hi, I have been trying to learn about markup language. I keep running into several different acronyms when I'm reading about it like SGML, HyTime and DSSSL. What do these mean and what do they have to do with markup language?

By serenesurface — On Mar 31, 2011

I remember when HTML markup language was foreign to most other than website programmers. But today I see "how-to" pages all over the net teaching people to use markup languages. I think these social networking sites have made markup language more popular because everyone would want their site to be different and unique than others'.

I think especially famous and popular individuals are using social networking sites to both interact with their fans and to advertise their works. I'm sure most actually hire someone to do this stuff. But I know some people also have interest in computers and website building, so they try to learn some markup language to customize their sites themselves.

I would love to this if I could. I think it's always better to do it yourself because you know exactly what you want. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no talent in this field. I wonder if there is software out there that can make markup language easier to use for people like me? That would be excellent.

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