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In this answer I used the blockquote markdown syntax to emphasize the few sentences that contain the gist of the answer. Federico Poloni commented that this is bad practice and his comment got some upvotes. On the other hand, I've seen others using the same practice, see, e.g. this answer, this question or this question So I like to ask:

Is is bad practice to use the blockquote syntax to highlight a tl;dr?

(Oops, I did it again…)

A bit related:

Would the use of blockquotes confuse some machines that read the site? (And would this be good or bad?)

(He did it again!)

  • Good question. (You know my point of view.) However, I'd say it makes more sense on Meta.SE, since it's really appropriate to all SE sites, not specifically to Academia.SE. Searching for something like your question there didn't yield any hits. Do you want to ask a mod to migrate your question there? – Stephan Kolassa Feb 2 '16 at 15:19
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    @StephanKolassa I am nut sure - I suspect that different sites have different views on this. Probably it's better to see first, what people here think about this. I think one can not expect any consensus across the network. – Dirk Feb 2 '16 at 15:22
  • @StephanKolassa Regarding the markup-properties: Markdown is not configurable (as far as I know). So it is impossible to create further markup than already offered. For me, this is reason enough to use the existing syntax for any purpose I like. – Dirk Feb 2 '16 at 15:24
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    I'm tempted to draw the attention of the friendly people over at Meta.TeX.SE to this question and watch the flames erupt ;-) – Stephan Kolassa Feb 2 '16 at 15:33
  • @StephanKolassa Go ahead. I not really sure if there will be much interest, but now I am curious. – Dirk Feb 2 '16 at 19:01
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    Did you ever notice how blockquotes look in mobile-mode? While it might seem like a reasonable form of emphasis in full-mode I feel in mobile-mode it is quite obviously not. – quid Feb 6 '16 at 21:50
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TL;DR

Yes, it is bad practice. Use either boldface or headlines to highlight TL;DRs. Use blockquotes only for text that could have otherwise been set in quotation marks.

Regarding the examples

  • The blockquotes in your answer are irritating. From my first glance at the answer, I expected something like: A brief introduction; a quote from the question; some elaboration; a suggestion on how to phrase something. Thus when I actually read the answer, I lost some time to being flummoxed.

    Even, if we ignore the fact that the formatting of blockquotes is intended and designed for quotes, your answer is badly formatted. About half the text is emphasised and it would be much easier to read, if you integrated the blockquotes in the respective sentences, e.g., like this:

    My interpretation of the situation is that this is not an academic issue since you are approaching somebody who leads some business with some business-related issue.

    The fact that that somebody is also a professor and that somebody who you know has a class with this professor seems unrelated. So my advice would be to handle this as if it were a business meeting and not an academic meeting.

  • In this answer by Aeismail, the blockquotes are not needed, but as the text is actually a quote of some sort and could be legitimally enclosed in quotation marks, it does not cause any kind of dissonance while reading.

  • In this question by Electrique, the blockquotes have no reason to exist at all. The list is already visually detached from the rest of the text anyway.

  • In this question by ff524, the blockquotes are not needed either. The question is already emphasised through the boldface. In my opinion, the best way to format this question would be using headlines, such as Background; Actual Question; Related questions. This way the main question is highlighted as intended and there is no extensive use of boldface.

In general

We are trained to read quotes as quotes and their design is tailored towards this purpose. Therefore abusing them decreases readability and should be done as rarely as possible.

Alternatives are:

  • If you want to emphasise a sentence or a shorter amount of text: boldface.

  • If you want to emphasise a longer amount of text: Use a headline that communicates the importance of this part.

  • If you want to communicate that a portion of the text happens is different (but not more important), e.g., meta information or a digression, use italics.

    Before somebody comes along and complains that you may want to use italics for other purpose: Upright is the italics of italics. LaTeX’s \emph works exactly like this.

  • Not emphasising at all. Often it is just not necessary.

  • That's well argued! – Dirk Feb 2 '16 at 20:26
  • After posting my answer and reading yours, I went through many of my answers to check if I hadn't misused block quotes... – Massimo Ortolano Feb 2 '16 at 20:29
  • @MassimoOrtolano: It’s not the end of the world, you know. I may have misused blockquotes myself, when I was young and needed the reputation. – Wrzlprmft Feb 2 '16 at 20:31
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Is is bad practice to use the blockquote syntax to highlight a tl;dr?

Yes, because now we have a double block quote, but only the outer one is a real quote: sometimes, yes, you might need to reproduce the original formatting too.

Since questions can be edited in time, and there other ways of highlighting a part of the text (e.g. italics or bold), I think it's useful to have a clear marker of what's a real quote and what's not.

Note: I have to admit, though, that I'm kind of obsessive for this sort of things (as my PhD students kindly like to remind me).

  • The colon in the question confuses me, but isn't the block quote actually a quote? For example, I said "this is a quote" – StrongBad Feb 2 '16 at 15:41
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In the absence of block quotes, I am pretty sure your two uses in this question and the examples you link to should be offset with quotation marks (although my grammar is atrocious). The example where people complained, however, should not be offset with quotation marks. As bad as my grammar is, my understanding of typographical style is worse, but I think anything in quotation marks can be typeset as a block quote.

I do not think we should limit the use of block quotes to quotes taken directly from the text of the question (or even answers or other sources), but we should reserve them for quotes. I think bold and/or italic can be used to provide emphasis.

  • I think what you write is true for the first linked answer, but not for the two linked questions. In these two questions the OPs use the blockquote to make the actual question stick out of the motivation and background. In the second linked question (the one by @ff524) the blockquoted question can be understood without the context. – Dirk Feb 2 '16 at 15:45
  • @Dirk I asked over at E&L.SE: english.stackexchange.com/questions/303963/… – StrongBad Feb 2 '16 at 17:21
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In my opinion, the biggest issue here is that misusing blockquotes as a form of emphasis happens because:

  1. they look too emphatic. The yellow background is too flashy. The black-on-grey used here on Meta seems a better alternative, or also the schemes commonly used on e-mail (intented text with a thin colored vertical bar on their right).
  2. there is no alternative syntax in Markdown for the same purpose.

To fix #1. I have submitted a feature request for changing the color scheme for blockquotes.

I would appreciate a fix for #2, too, but it would require adding Markdown syntax, which of course cannot be a decision specific to academia.se, and shouldn't be taken lightly (I am definitely against a further Balkanization of Markdown). A possibility, anyway, could be using exclamation marks:

This is normal text

! This is a paragraph with emphasis

This is normal text again.
-1

I'll answer my own question with my view:

In view of the very few possibilities that markdown offers to format answer and basically no customizability of the markup, one can barely speak of a markup language (there even is not syntax for emphasis, only commands for typesetting such as italics, bold, and bold italic). Moreover, logical markup is not used to parse answers by algorithms (other than rendering). Hence, my view is that markdown shall be used to format the posts to appear as needed.

Finally, other SE sites seem to use blockquotes for other purposes than quotes: A comment to StrongBad's question over at english.stackexchange states that

…the main use of block quotes here is to format and separate examples of word usage.

Over as tex.stackexchange I also noticed the pattern that people used blockquotes to emphasize paragraphs.

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    Examples of word usage are something one would usually set in quotation marks, if no other mode of emphasis is available, so it is a pretty orthodox way of using blockquotes. – Wrzlprmft Feb 2 '16 at 19:45
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    Over as tex.stackexchange I also noticed the pattern that people used blockquotes to emphasize paragraphs. – That does not make it a good practice. Also, note that by the nature of its topic, TeX SE requires the use of blockquotes quite rarely, and its blockquote design is less tailored towards quoting. – Wrzlprmft Feb 2 '16 at 19:49
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    FYI, there is syntax for emphasis in Markdown. The original specification states: "Emphasis Markdown treats asterisks (*) and underscores (_) as indicators of emphasis. Text wrapped with one * or _ will be wrapped with an HTML <em> tag; double *’s or _’s will be wrapped with an HTML <strong> tag.". So asterisks and underscores are the semantic markup for emphasis, and they get translated into HTML's semantic markup for emphasis. – Federico Poloni Feb 5 '16 at 12:52

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