It is no secret that WordPress runs half the Internet, and dictates what the other half is trying to be—either in imitation or in reaction.
Well, WordPress theme designers, the time has come to learn the difference between a block quote and a pull quote.
Now, for those who simply use the Web, without worrying too much about how it comes to look the way it looks and do what it does, a bit of explanation is in order. The simplest way to make a Web site, at least conceptually, is with simple HTML (“Hypertext Markup Language”) pages—HTML being a series of codes that tell your browser how to render the pages. A little bit of extra “CSS” (“Cascading Style Sheets”) code determines aesthetic things like fonts, column widths, colors, and so on. This is how Dr. Boli runs his Eclectic Library.
But a complex site becomes difficult to manage that way. It is much more efficient to use a “CMS” (“Content Management System”), which takes care of the technical details. The writer writes, the designer designs, and the CMS software puts their work together into a functioning site. The “theme” is the set of CSS codes and other aesthetic instructions that make the site look the way it looks. By changing the “theme,” you can change the whole look of a site all at once.
WordPress, which started as a machine for blogging, has grown into a behemoth of a CMS. This Magazine has used WordPress since 2007, making it a fairly early adopter of the system. The current look of the site is the result of Dr. Boli’s searching the entire universe of WordPress themes and finally giving up on finding one that met his specifications. Instead, he took a very basic theme and rewrote most of the CSS to create the unique aesthetic experience we enjoy today. And he never wants to do that again, because it was a slog.
The problem is that writing WordPress themes requires a good deal of coding. Designers are not necessarily the best coders. Neither are writers. Coders, on the other hand, are not necessarily the best writers or designers. It is a flaw of the system that the design aspects of it are left in the hands of computer programmers. Writers are generally at the mercy of these coders-turned-designers, who dictate how text served up on the Internet will look.
So it is up to us, the informed writers and designers, to teach theme coders what we need.
We could mention many things. We could mention column widths that are correct for comfortable reading. We could mention type fonts that are legible rather than pretty. But today we are mentioning block quotes.
In a printed book or magazine, a block quote is a quotation that seems too long for quotation marks. It is easier to read and sort out which text is the quoted text if these quotations are separated typographically. There is a traditional way of doing this: most often a block quote is indented from the main text on both right and left sides, and frequently the text in the quotation is slightly smaller than the main text.
First and foremost, war is war and military organization is, and must be, tyranny. This is, perhaps, the greatest and most barbarous cost of war and the most pressing reason for its abolition from civilization.
That was a block quote—in this case, a quotation from W. E. B. Du Bois. HTML has a
<blockquote> tag for just this purpose. But the theme designer gets to decide how those blockquotes will look. And almost invariably the theme designers decide wrong.
All over the Internet, you will see quoted text that is much larger than the text that surrounds it. Frequently the quotations are also set in italics or bold or a pretty but illegible font, and they may have colored backgrounds and fancy ornamental quotation marks (usually huge and only at the beginning, not the end).
These are not block quotes. These are pull quotes. A “pull quote” is an ornamental graphic element designed to draw attention to part of the text, or more cynically to take up otherwise blank space on a page. It is not meant to be part of the article.
The problem is that theme designers usually assign pull-quote attributes to block quotes, and writers are stuck using them—or, worse, writers who wrote on a site with a well-designed theme wake up one morning to find that someone has decided to change the theme, and all the block quotes are huge and ugly. These huge, ugly, and incorrect quotes are everywhere. They make reading long passages a dreadful chore. They ruin the Internet.
At this point, the problem is almost by definition a WordPress problem, because the power of WordPress over the Internet is so great. It is not merely that half the sites you see are built on WordPress. Even the sites that use a different CMS very often are using adapted WordPress themes. (Dr. Boli’s own “Random Translations,” for example, is run on a much simpler system called “HTMLy,” but the theme is a ported WordPress theme.) So WordPress theme designers are the ones who must be educated.
Here, then, is your education. Block quotes are for quoted text within an article, and should generally appear slightly smaller than the text around them. Pull quotes are a separate thing, and should have their own separate style not likely to be confused with a block quote.
There. That wasn’t so hard.