Markup spec

There are many documents aiming at creating a formal representation of the MediaWiki markup and the parser behaviour. So far, none of them are complete, but there are a number of drafts in different syntaxes such as BNF, EBNF or ANTLR. In this document all of these efforts are collected, discussed and coordinated.



Produce a specification of MediaWiki's markup format that is sufficiently complete and consistent. Future parser implementations can be built from it. Also, features that are currently either Not Possible or Very Hard (e.g. WYSIWYG editing) could benefit from such a specification.

Specification might include both grammar description and parser behaviour.

Concerning the grammar description, the specification might use a standard notation such as BNF or EBNF.

In order to avoid breaking existent pages, the specification should preserve present parser behavior that is reasonable and well-defined. Adding requirements for new behaviour must be well-considered in that respect. Where the current parser's behavior is undefined or obviously buggy, the specification may define new behavior which is different. The parser might be described using tools such as ANTLR.

Also a data model for a parse tree can be defined. The data model should be representable in XML. An official XML schema for such a representation may or may not be defined. Round-trip conversion between source code and the data should be also possible with a data model. There might be a many-to-one relationship between source code and parse trees, but the canonical transformation from parse tree to source code should always parse back to the same parse tree.

Feasibility study


It has been broadly asserted that the Wiki Markup is a context-sensitive language, and therefore that it cannot be expressed with a context-free grammar (such as the those defined with BNF or EBNF). To put some light on the topic, it would be useful to first define some concepts:

Language generation and grammar type


As it can be seen in the rule description of each one of the grammars, regular grammars have very relaxed rules, whereas unrestricted grammars are allowed to describe very restraining rules. Relaxed in this context means that symbols can be generated in regular grammars without taking into account what has been produced so far. More on the contrary, context-sensitive grammars' and unrestricted grammars' rules might need some already-generated strings in order to apply certain rules.

Contrary to what could be intuitive, context-sensitive grammars can have more restrictive rules. Not in vain, Chomsky conceived context-sensitive grammars as a way to describe natural language. Natural languages are clearly more restrictive than classical context-free computer languages (such as C or Java), for it is true that a word may or may not be appropriate in a certain place depending upon the context.

Wikicode is, as many other computer languages, a context-free language. The Wikicode is composed of many tokens for formatting, title description, text linking or list representation. Some of the tokens need to be placed in a certain place (such as those which need to go at the beginning of a line), but otherwise tokens may appear in any place of the document, regardless of the context. Considering that, it could be argued that Wikicode is indeed a regular language. However, a regular grammar can only express nesting if it also defines a known maximum nesting level, while Wikicode does not have one.

In short, Wikicode does not need context-sensitive grammar rules, for any token can be placed anywhere (with few restrictions such as #REDIRECT, include modes and similar structures). It cannot be however expressed with regular grammar rules, as nested structures with an arbitrary depth cannot be described in type 3 grammars. Therefore, a context-free grammar suffices for Wikicode description.

Ambiguities in the language


The fact that Wikicode uses the same characters for different tokens leads to strings that can be interpreted in many different ways. This does not mean, however, that the language is not context-free, but instead that there are many different combinations of rules in the grammar that reach to the same final string. Consider the following string of Wikicode:

The '''''dog''''''s bone

Being the word dog enclosed in cursive marks (two apostrophes) and bold marks (three apostrophes), with an additional apostrophe to indicate a saxon genitive. This does not necessarily mean that the language is inherently ambiguous either, as there might be a grammar which can generate that structure without ambiguity. In terms of language recognition, this can be easily avoided just considering a precedence in the rules (pretty much like the precedence rules in computer language's mathematical expressions).

Language recognition


Parsers normally use grammars to analyze or recognize strings of a certain language. When a mismatch (or error) is found, the parser needs to figure out what to do with the unexpected input, and a way to recover from the error in order to further analyze the string.

Whereas the grammar description is quite easy to describe, the parser behaviour is somewhat complex. This is due to the fact that every input string should derive to the most-likely result, even if it contains syntax errors. MediaWiki's parser does a complex error recovery, like for instance when dealing with wrongly nested structures such as:

''The '''quick'' brown''' fox

where the opening bold mark is inside an italics structure, and the closed bold mark is outside. For a valid output to be produced, the parser closes the italics structure and opens it again, producing an output where the two structures are properly nested. Also, should a tag mismatching occur, such as in the following example:

The quick ''brown fox

the parser will add the mismatched closing tags. The huge number of recovery rules make the language recognizer hard to describe, for every single rule should be reflected in the specification. Since there is not such thing as right or wrong Wikicode, an extensive list of recovery rules is as important as the own grammar when aiming at creating a complete description of the wiki language interpretation.

Current efforts


So far progress has been made in both grammar definition and parser behaviour. Although none of the descriptions seems to be complete, some have achieved to describe a good part of the language.

Current parser descriptions tried to do its best to follow the MediaWiki's parser behaviour. It is however very hard to properly describe all the error recovery and rule precedence performed by the MediaWiki's parser, for there are a number of different cases of grammar mismatch (i.e.: unclosed tags) or operator precedence, considering the ambiguity that symbols such as ' or | brings.



The Markup Language


The MediaWiki markup language (commonly referred to within the MediaWiki community as wikitext, though this usage is ambiguous within the larger wiki community) uses sometimes paired non-textual ASCII characters to indicate to the parser how the editor wishes an item or section of text to be displayed. The parser translates these tokens into (X)HTML as closely as semantically possible.

v1.6 markup tokens


The markup tokens fall into two broad categories: unary tokens (like : or * used at the beginning of a line), which stand alone, and binary tokens (like those for italic or boldface) which must be used in matched pairs. Unary tokens may only be preceded by comments or whitespace; otherwise, they will not be interpreted.


Start of line only
  • blank line: paragraph break (HTML <p>)
  • Horizontal line: ---- (4 or more hyphens), specified in /BNF/Article#Horizontal rule
  • Pre-formatted text: (space)
  • Lists
    • Bulleted: *
    • Numbered: #
    • Indent with no marking: :
    • Definition list: ;
    • These may be combined at the start of the line to create nested lists, e.g. *** to give a bulleted list three levels deep, or **# to have a numbered list within two-levels of bulleted list nesting.
  • Redirects: #redirect or #REDIRECT (followed by wikilink)
  • The whole quagmire that is table formatting: {| ... |} with in between |- |+ || | !! ! .
Can be used anywhere
  • "Magic words", e.g. __FORCETOC__, __NOEDITSECTION__ (see Help:Magic words)
  • Signatures:
    • ~~~ Replaced with your username
    • ~~~~ Replaced with your username and the date
    • ~~~~~ Replaced with the date.
    • These tags are replaced at the point the edit is saved.
  • Magic links: ISBN ..., RFC ..., PMID ... (see BNF/Magic links)



The ellipses (...) are used to indicate where the content goes and are not part of the markup.

Beginning of a line
  • Equals signs are used for headings (must be at start of line)
    • 1st level heading: = ... =
    • 2nd level heading: == ... ==
    • 3rd level heading: === ... ===
    • 4th level heading: ==== ... ====
    • 5th level heading: ===== ... =====
    • 6th level heading: ====== ... ======
    • Specified in /BNF/Article#Heading
  • Square brackets are used for links:
    • Internal/interwiki link + language links + category links + images: [[ ... ]] (see also Namespaces below)
      vertical bars separate optional parameters, which are:
      • link: first parameter: display text (also defaulted using "pipe trick") (also trailing concatenated text included in display, e.g. s for plural)
      • image: many parameters; see w:Wikipedia:Extended image syntax; may contain nested links (and images!) in caption text.
      • category: first parameter: sort order in category list
      link contents have to be parsed for whether they're dates if $wgUseDynamicDates is on
    • External link: [ ... ]
      space separates optional second parameter, which is display text
    • undecorated URLs are also recognized and hotlinked
    • Specified in /BNF/Links
  • Apostrophes are used for formatting:
    • Italic: '' ... ''
    • Bold: ''' ... '''
    • Bold + Italic: ''''' ... '''''
    • Note that improper nesting of bold and italics is currently permitted.
  • Curly braces are used for transclusion:
    • Include template: {{ ... }} (see also Namespaces below)
      • Unlimited number of optional pipe-delimited parameters, each of which may optionally start with a parameter name preceding an equals sign
    • Include template parameter: {{{ ... }}}
      • Optionally including a pipe followed by the parameter default: {{{1|Bob}}} will use the first passed in parameter, and if none is received, will insert "Bob" instead.
    • Use a built-in variable: {{PAGENAME}} (see m:Help:Variable)
    • Call a parser function: {{ ... }}
  • Various XML style tags:
    • Inline and text elements:
      • <!-- ... --> HTML-style comments (filtered out)
      • ‎<nowiki> do not interpret wiki markup, do allow newline in list and indent elements (but still flow text, still allow SGML entities)
      • ‎<onlyinclude> ‎<noinclude> ‎<includeonly>
      • SGML entities: &...; (converted to Unicode characters where appropriate, otherwise to numeric entities)
      • Parser extension tags, like ‎<ref> (using Cite.php)
      • ‎<math> if $wgUseTeX is set
      • Plus most non-dangerous HTML styling inline elements: 'font' (deprecated), 'bdo', 'b', 'i', 'u', 's', 'strike', 'big', 'small', 'tt', 'span'
      • Plus most non-dangerous HTML semantic inline elements: 'br', 'abbr', 'cite', 'del', 'ins', 'sub', 'sup', 'em', 'strong', 'var', 'code', 'ruby', 'rb', 'rt', 'rp'
        The following non-dangerous semantic inline elements are still not recognized (or were forgotten): 'acronym', 'q', 'address', 'dfn', 'samp', 'kbd'.
        The following potentially dangerous inline elements are forbidden: 'bgsound', 'style', 'a', 'image', 'map', 'area', 'embed', 'noembed', 'applet', 'object', 'param', 'script', 'noscript', 'iframe'
    • Block elements (most of them are semantic):
      • ‎<html> if $wgRawHtml is set
        The following document-structure declarative elements are forbidden in the wiki source code: 'head', 'title', 'base', 'meta', 'link', 'body', 'frameset', 'frame'
      • ‎<pre> do not interpret wiki markup, do not flow text (but still allow SGML entities)
      • <gallery>
        Note: the non-dangerous standard tags for column groups or column definitions ('colgroup', 'col') are still not supported (not even with their HTML/XHTML syntax) despite they would help saving lots of CSS duplication or complexities in tables and would offer additional usability features, plus adding semantics (notably for row groups).
      • Plus most non-dangerous HTML block elements: 'h1', 'h2', 'h3', 'h4', 'h5', 'h6', 'p', 'hr', 'div', 'center' (presentational, deprecated), 'blockquote', 'ol', 'ul', 'li', 'dl', 'dt', 'dd', 'table', 'caption', 'tr', 'td', 'th'
        Form elements are also not accepted in wiki source code: 'form', 'input', 'button', 'textarea', 'label' (as well as old gopher-like menu elements)
        Note: MediaWiki enforces the HTML DOM (and not the XHTML DOM), which restricts the recursive inclusion of some block element types (for example 'div' in the middle of a paragraph will break it, independently of its CSS 'display:' attribute which may be specified in a separate stylesheet, and not in the wiki source code). It will then close some elements implicitly and convert XHTML syntax to valid HTML/SGML, recognizing also elements that can't have no content in the HTML DOM (such as 'br').



In wikilinks and template inclusions, colons set off namespaces and other modifiers:

  • proper namespaces: Talk:, User:, Project:, etc.
  • "special" namespaces: File: (was Image:), Category:, Template:
  • pseudo-namespaces: Special:, Media:
  • lone/leading :
    • lone : forces main namespace
    • leading : allows link to image page rather than inline image, or similarly to category or template page
  • interwiki links:
    • same project, different language: code of two or more letters
    • different project, same language: w: for Wikipedia, wikt: for Wiktionary, m: for Meta, etc. -- see m:Help:Interwiki_linking for more information (especially when using in templates; transwiki transclusion, iw_trans)
  • subst: force one-time template substitution upon edit, rather than dynamic expansion on each view
  • int:, msg:, msgnw:, raw: -- see m:Help:Magic words#Template modifiers
  • MediaWiki: magically access mediawiki formatting and boilerplate text (e.g. MediaWiki:copyrightwarning)
  • Standard parser functions: UC:, LC:, etc. (see m:Help:Parser function)
  • Additional parser functions: #expr:, #if:, #switch:, etc.
  • other extensions?

Several combinations of the above are possible, e.g. m:Help:Variable -- help namespace within Meta project.

MetaWiki markup description


The following text was at m:Wikitext Metasyntax and needs to be merged with the description above.

Document element declaration

AnyText = InlineText | BlockText ;
InlineText = Line | InlineTextNormal | InlineTextExtra | EitherText ;
InlineTextNormal = Line | Bold | Italic | BoldItalic ;
InlineTextExtra = Line | InternalLink | ExternalLink | InlineHTML ;
BlockText = Text | Image | Media | Table | Heading | Separator | Gallery | List | BlockHTML | EitherText ;
EitherText = Extension | Template | NoWiki | Parameter | Comment ;

Basic Markup


Define markups


Template = "{{" [ "msg:" | "msgnw:" ] PageName { "|" [ ParameterName "=" AnyText | AnyText ] } "}}" ;
Extension = "<" ? extension ? ">" AnyText "</" ? extension ? ">" ;
NoWiki = "<nowiki />" | "<nowiki>" ( InlineText | BlockText ) "</nowiki>" ;
Parameter = "{{{" ParameterName { Parameter } [ "|" { AnyText | Parameter } ] "}}}" ;
Comment = "<!--" InlineText "-->" | "<!--" BlockText "//-->" ;
ParameterName = ? uppercase, lowercase, numbers, no spaces, some special chars ? ;

Parser outline


Another way to check whether we've covered everything in the grammar is to look at the steps the parser actually goes through:

The preprocessor does
  1. Strip (hooks before/after)
  2. Remove HTML-like comments
  3. Replace variables
    1. Subst
    2. MSG, MSGNW, RAW
    3. Parser functions
    4. Templates
The parser does
  1. Strip (hooks before, after)
    1. treats nowiki, pre, math and possibly other with "userfunc tag hooks" hiero)
    2. Removes HTML-like comments
      • HTML comments are removed. (this text by HappyDog)
      • Any tags that are not allowed by the software (e.g. <script> tags) are replaced by HTML entitities, so they display as literals and are not treated as HTML by the browser.
      • Any badly formed tags (e.g. nested tags that shouldn't be nested, <tr> tags outside a <table> tag, etc.) are also replaced by HTML entitities so they are not treated as HTML.
      • Any attributes that are not allowed by the software (e.g. onMouseOver) are removed from otherwise valid tags.
      • A small amount of minor source formatting is applied (basically, the removal of unnecessary whitespace).
      • A closing tag is added at the end for all tags that are not closed properly. Note that some tags (e.g. <br>) don't need to be closed.
  2. Internal parse
    1. Noinclude/onlyinclude/includeonly sections
    2. Remove HTML tags
    3. Replace variables
      1. Hooks: Internalparsebeforelinks
    4. Tables
    5. Magic words
      1. Strip TOC (__NOTOC__, __TOC__)
      2. Strip no gallery (__NOGALLERY__)
    6. do headings
    7. Do dynamic dates
    8. Do quotes ('' and ''')
    9. Replace internal links
      1. Process images (do the caption recursively as it might contain links, or even other images...)
      2. Process categories
    10. Replace external links
    11. Re-replace masked internal links
    12. Do magic links (ISBN, RFC...)
    13. Format headings (__NEWSECTIONLINK__, __FORCETOC__...)
  3. Unstrip general
  4. Fix tags (french spaces, guillemet)
  5. Blocks (lists etc)
  6. Replace link holders
  7. Language converter:
    1. Normal text converted on a word by word basis(?) if autoconvert is enabled
    2. Text in -{code1:text1;code2:text2;...}- blocks converted manually
    3. Text in -{...}- not converted at all.
  8. Unstrip no wiki
  9. Extra tags and params
  10. User funcs?
  11. Un strip general
  12. Normalise char references
  13. Tidy + hook
The save parser does
  1. Convert newlines
  2. Strips
  3. Pass 2
    1. Substs
    2. Strip again? gallery something.
    3. Signatures
    4. Pipe tricks
    5. Trim trailing whitespace
  4. Unstrips