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Differences with the original Markdown

vfmd is a variant of Markdown with an unambiguous specification of its syntax.

This document lists the differences between the vfmd syntax and John Gruber's original Markdown syntax.

Please note that in this document, the vfmd syntax is compared with the syntax of the original Markdown as described in the original Markdown syntax page, and not with, which is an implementation of that syntax.

Moreover, there are several instances where the vfmd syntax guide describes a syntax in a higher level of detail than the original Markdown syntax guide. Those are not included as differences in this document.

Overview of the differences

In brief, these are the differences between the vfmd syntax and the original Markdown syntax:

  1. Intra-word emphasis: The original Markdown allows intra-word emphasis using Markdown emphasis constructs. vfmd doesn't.

  2. Simplified reference link/image syntax: The syntax description of the original Markdown does not talk about links like [this] as a short form of [this][]. vfmd encourages using links like [this] instead of like [this][].

  3. Lists and the 4-space rule: vfmd has a simpler and clearer rule (in comparison to the original Markdown syntax) for nesting blocks inside lists, that results in more intuitive output for nested lists.

  4. Better automatic link detection: In vfmd, straightforward links like don't need to be surrounded in <angle brackets> to get automatically converted to links.

  5. Double blank lines as end of blocks: vfmd introduces a new rule that is not present in the original Markdown syntax, wherein two consecutive blank lines end the current blockquote or list or code block.

  6. Starting number in lists: vfmd honours the number you use to start a numbered list. In contrast, the original Markdown syntax always starts lists at the number "1", irrespective of what number is used to start the list in the source text.

  7. Misnested constructs: The vfmd specification defines how misnested constructs should be handled. The original Markdown syntax does not document the behaviour on encountering such bad input. (To be fair, vfmd too doesn't include this in it's syntax guide page because most document authors don't need to know this).

  8. Including raw HTML: The original Markdown syntax page implies that HTML blocks can be freely included within Markdown, and shall be recognized correctly. In practice however, correctly figuring out where the HTML block ends is a hard problem for a Markdown parser, especially when there is no guarantee that the HTML shall be well-formed.

    vfmd sidesteps this problem by redefining how HTML should be mixed with Markdown. In doing that, it also provides a clean way for Markdown constructs to be used within HTML blocks.

  9. Character encoding: The original Markdown syntax does not explicitly require a specific character encoding. vfmd requires that the character encoding be UTF-8.

None of these is new, really.

All these items have been discussed extensively in the markdown-discuss mailing list. In addition, items #1, #3 and #8 were the "gotchas" spotted by John Fraser as discussed in Three Markdown Gotchas. Items #1 and #4 are highlighted by Jeff Atwood in his Responsible Open Source Code Parenting blog post.

Details of the differences

Intra-word emphasis

The original Markdown allows intra-word emphasis. For example, in the original Markdown, the following:

That is un*frigging*believable.

That is un_frigging_believable.

will be converted to:

<p>That is un<em>frigging</em>believable.</p>

<p>That is un<em>frigging</em>believable.</p>

But actually, it's not that uncommon to have literal underscores in the middle of words, especially in filenames and URL fragments, so interpreting them as indicators of emphasis would be incorrect and confusing.

Moreover, intra-word emphasis results in ambiguity. For certain inputs involving intra-word emphasis, there are multiple ways in which it can be interpreted. For example:

*One **Two Three***Four** Five*

The above input could mean any of the following HTML equivalents, and the author of the text could have meant any of these with equal probabilities:

  1. <em>One <strong>Two Three***Four</strong> Five</em>
  2. <em>One <strong>Two Three</strong></em>Four** Five*
  3. *One **Two Three<em><strong>Four</strong> Five</em>

The above example uses multiple words, but even if we allow only intra-word emphasis that is contained within a word, the possibility of ambiguous input still remains.

On the other hand, in Japanese (and maybe in some other languages as well), there is no concept of using spaces to separate words. So, disallowing intra-word emphasis results in problems like this and this. So, in order to be able to use any kind of Markdown emphasis construct in Japanese text, honouring intra-word emphasis becomes necessary.

Considering the above points, the cons of supporting intra-word emphasis appear to outweigh the benefits. Therefore, it was decided that vfmd would not allow intra-word emphasis.

In vfmd, it is not possible to emphasize only part of a word using vfmd constructs. So, for an input vfmd that looks like this:

That is un_frigging_believable.

the corresponding HTML output will be:

<p>That is un_frigging_believable.</p>

In vfmd, you are encouraged to specify reference links like this:

Just ask [Google].


The syntax page for the original Markdown doesn't mention this syntax, but mentions the implicit link name syntax, which looks like this:

Just ask [Google][].


Though the short form of the implicit link name syntax (of using [this] instead of [this][]) isn't mentioned in the syntax page for the original Markdown, it was conceived by John Gruber and Aaron Swartz, and implemented in v1.0.2b2.

Writing like [this] for links is a much cleaner link syntax than [this][]. It really does make the text look not-marked-up. vfmd encourages using links like [this] instead of like [this][], though it supports both forms.

Lists and the 4-space rule

The original Markdown syntax page suggests that blocks nested within list items should be indented by 4 additional spaces.

On including paragraphs in list items, the original Markdown syntax page says:

List items may consist of multiple paragraphs. Each subsequent paragraph in a list item must be indented by either 4 spaces or one tab.

On including code blocks in list items, the original Markdown syntax page says:

To put a code block within a list item, the code block needs to be indented twice — 8 spaces or two tabs.

Though left unspecified, many implementations (including John Gruber's extend this to nested lists as well, which results in some rather unintuitive interpretation of lists.

For example, the input:

- top
  - indented by two spaces
    - indented by four spaces
      - indented by six spaces
    - indented by four spaces

is interpreted according to the (implied) original Markdown syntax as:

  • top
    • indented by two spaces
    • indented by four spaces
      • indented by six spaces
    • indented by four spaces

vfmd redefines the syntax for nesting lists by requiring that nested elements align vertically with the starting position of the first paragraph of the list item.

For the above example, the vfmd interpretation would be:

  • top
    • indented by two spaces
      • indented by four spaces
        • indented by six spaces
      • indented by four spaces

which follows the structure of the input text much more closely.

The original Markdown syntax requires that links be surrounded in <angle brackets> for them to get linked up. For the input:

Go to <> and find out.

the original Markdown syntax will produce the HTML output:

<p>Go to <a href=""></a> and find out.</p>

If the link is not surrounded in <angle brackets>, the original Markdown syntax will not recognize that as a link.

So, for the input:

Go to and find out.

the original Markdown syntax will produce the HTML output:

<p>Go to and find out.</p>

However, in plain text email (which is the inspiration for the original Markdown and for vfmd), links are often found without the surrounding <angle brackets>. Therefore, vfmd recognizes fully-formed links of the form scheme://path even if they are not enclosed in <angle brackets>.

For the input:

Go to and find out.

vfmd will produce the HTML output:

<p>Go to <a href=""></a> and find out.</p>

Double blank lines as end of blocks

In vfmd, two consecutive blank lines signify the end of the current block for blockquotes, lists and code blocks. This enables document authors to write two blockquotes (or lists, or code blocks) one after the other, without them getting merged into one blockquote (or list or code block).

The original Markdown syntax does not specify such a rule.

For example:

1. Item 1
2. Item 2
3. Item 3

   * Some other list
   * Some other list

In vfmd, the above text will be interpreted as two separate lists, rather than making the latter items a sublist of "Item 3". vfmd's interpretation is more consistent with the structure of the input text.

This idea was proposed by John Gruber for signifying the end of lists, but was never implemented in vfmd adopts this idea for lists and extends it to blockquotes and code blocks as well for consistency.

Starting number in lists

In both vfmd and the original Markdown, the order of the numbers in a numbered list is immaterial - the list will always be ordered correctly in the output. In addition to that, vfmd allows the list to start at any arbitrary number, while in the original Markdown, the list is always assumed to start at the number "1".

The original Markdown syntax page says:

If you do use lazy list numbering, however, you should still start the list with the number 1. At some point in the future, Markdown may support starting ordered lists at an arbitrary number.

vfmd honours the starting number used in the list and preserves that in the output.

For example, vfmd would convert the following text:

3. Cueball
1. Black Hat
1. White Hat
7. Raptor

to the HTML output:

<ol start="3">
    <li>Black Hat</li>
    <li>White Hat</li>

In contrast, the original Markdown will not include the start="3" attribute in its output.

Misnested constructs

Consider the input text:

__strong *and__ em*

[link text `and](url "with") code` span

The above are examples of misnested constructs. Whenever one span-level construct appears intertwined with another span-level construct (instead of one being nested within the other), the constructs are said to be misnested.

The original Markdown syntax page does not define how these should be handled, which is understandable, given that the original Markdown syntax page is targeted at document writers.

In vfmd too, the handing of misnested constructs is not defined in the syntax guide, but there's no ambiguity on this in the vfmd specification.

This is how vfmd handles misnested constructs:

  1. Code-spans and image constructs cannot contain other span elements, so they take the highest precedence.

    For example, in [link text `and](url "with") code` span, the link is not recognized because link contents cannot contain an unescaped backtick (as described in the syntax guide) but the code-span is recognized.

  2. HTML tags take the next precedence

    For example, in __strong <i>and__ italics</i>, the HTML tags are identified, but the strong emphasis is not honoured.

  3. All other span-level constructs together take the lowest precedence, with the first-occuring construct being prioritized.

    For example, in __strong *and__ em*, only the strong emphasis is honoured because it occurs first.

The idea that the first-occuring construct should be honoured was proposed by Jacob Rus and endorsed by John Gruber.

Including raw HTML

The original Markdown syntax says this about including HTML blocks in Markdown text:

For any markup that is not covered by Markdown's syntax, you simply use HTML itself. There's no need to preface it or delimit it to indicate that you're switching from Markdown to HTML; you just use the tags.

The only restrictions are that block-level HTML elements - e.g. <div>, <table>, <pre>, <p>, etc. - must be separated from surrounding content by blank lines, and the start and end tags of the block should not be indented with tabs or spaces. Markdown is smart enough not to add extra (unwanted) <p> tags around HTML block-level tags.

In practice, however, the identification of where the HTML block ends is not consistent across implementations. In fact, it turns out that identifying the end of the HTML block is quite a hard problem, if we consider the possibility that the HTML block can have badly-formed HTML (which is not quite an improbable scenario, actually).

If we know the end of the HTML block beforehand, it is possible to make sense of badly-formed HTML containing misnested or unclosed tags. If we're guaranteed that the HTML is well-formed, it is possible to identify the end of the HTML block. But identifying the end of a potentially badly-formed HTML block in a stream of text is an extremely difficult (if not impossible) problem. Figuring out the end of the HTML block is necessary to correctly process the rest of the input.

That apart, another point of concern is that sometimes, document authors would like to have text within HTML blocks processed as Markdown (and not as verbatim HTML). John Gruber proposed that document authors add markdown="1" to the attributes of a div tag within which Markdown is to be processed, like this:

<div class="content" markdown="1">
Markdown is processed *here*

<div class="summary">
No Markdown processing here

As originally implemented, the markdown="1" does not propagate to divs nested under the div with the markdown="1" attribute. So, the markdown attribute should also be added to any other divs down the hierarchy, as required.

Other implementations have extended this idea in different ways. Some variations include:

All these implementations rely on being able to unambigously identify the end of the HTML element. With potentially badly-formed HTML, as we saw earlier, finding the correct matching end tag is a difficult problem.

For example:

<div class="content" markdown="1">

Going to insert **real bad** HTML code from somewhere:

<div markdown="0">

<!-- Bad HTML code below -->
<p>See table below:
<!-- End of bad HTML code -->


Can we have Markdown **here**, please?


Given that it is not possible to correctly identify the end of the HTML element, for the markdown="1" approach to be effective, we will have to tell document writers to be really careful about the HTML that they insert in their documents.

Considering the above points, vfmd takes a different approach to handling inline HTML. In vfmd, the Markdown-processable HTML blocks are separated from the verbatim HTML blocks with blank lines, like this:


Markdown processing done *here*

HTML block (no Markdown processing here)

Markdown processing done *here*


In this approach, the verbatim HTML sections are visually separated from the Markdown-processable sections, which makes the text comprehendible. That said, this approach has been studied and dismissed by John Gruber as being "too arbitrary".

The vfmd approach also makes it unnecessary for an implementation to figure out where a HTML block ends.

Character encoding

The original Markdown syntax page does not enforce any character encoding for Markdown, though John Gruber has suggested that the character encoding be UTF-8 when recommending how Markdown data should be exchanged between applications.

vfmd requires that the character encoding be UTF-8. The leading Byte-Order-Mark is optional, and is better avoided.