[whatwg] De-emphasis

David Walbert dwalbert at learnnc.org
Fri Feb 9 06:43:08 PST 2007

Responding, generally, to this discussion of de-emphasis:

In looking for a print analog the only common cases I can think of  
for de-emphasized text are notes (footnotes, endnotes, etc.) and  
parenthetical text. HTML 5 already has elements for asides & notes.  
As for parentheses, if the typical web author wants to insert  
parenthetical text and is writing in a language that uses  
parentheses, he/she will use parentheses. They're obvious, they're  
available from the keyboard. If one marked a piece of text as  
parenthetical using an HTML element, one would quite likely want it  
to be styled inside parentheses, and we all know how inconsistent CSS- 
generated content is. Few authors use the <q> tag, for the same reasons.

And I once had an English teacher tell me that if it had to be stuck  
in parentheses, it probably wasn't worth saying at all -- which seems  
to me to apply to some of the use cases mentioned in this discussion.

I don't know that parentheses have been mentioned in the discussion  
to this point. The visual styles that have been proposed for de- 
emphasized text are reduced font size and reduced opacity (sorry if  
I've missed something). A few people have pointed out that these will  
actually make text *more* visually obvious, so I made a test page to  


There are three pieces of de-emphasized text here: one with font- 
size: 80%, one with opacity: 0.8, and one with opacity: 0.6. I know  
where the de-emphasized text is, so it's easy for me to find, but the  
small-print and 60% opacity examples tend to draw my eye -- the  
styling gives visual emphasis, in other words. The 80% opacity  
example is so subtle that I might miss it or assume it was some kind  
of browser/monitor error. (Were I not using my fancy Cinema Display I  
probably would overlook it.)

Obviously this isn't a test of all the possibilities for visual  
styling, but it seems to me that any visual style that clearly marks  
a piece of text is going to make it stand out and, therefore, give it  
visual emphasis. I would assume, as a reader, that the small text was  
meant to be de-emphasized -- logically de-emphasized -- because I'd  
understand the convention the author used, but the mere act of  
noticing that and having to process it visually and logically will  
cause me to pay *more* attention to it than to the surrounding text.  
The 60% opacity text similarly draws my eye, but I would never assume  
that the author thought it less important than the surrounding text;  
I'd assume it was a visited link or else some kind of badly designed  

I'd propose, then, that inline visual de-emphasis may be impossible.  
(I'd suspect the same for audio de-emphasis -- would the smart screen  
reader whisper it? Wouldn't that, too, draw attention?) I could  
certainly be wrong, but I'd like to see a live example. If it isn't  
possible to functionally de-emphasize inline text, then having an  
element for it is a purely philosophical exercise and wouldn't have  
practical value.

David Walbert
LEARN NC, UNC-Chapel Hill
dwalbert at learnnc.org

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