Putting Readable Code in a WordPress Post

Writing about PHP or HTML code in WordPress posts or pages often requires that some actual code is shown on the screen for explanation. If special steps aren’t taken to illustrate the code as text, the result is often not what was intended to be seen because the WordPress engine will interpret the code as actual code, not text about code.

If all you want to do is highlight some text that includes code-related words like filenames, function names or plugin names, use <code></code> around those phrases in your text. Using <code></code> turns text into a monospaced font so that it appears differently in your posts than “normal” text. However, using <code></code> around an HTML tag doesn’t do anything except change the presentation of the tag, so the opening and closing angle brackets are interpreted to enclose an actual HTML tag. The result will be a mess and definitely not what you were hoping to see.

To make WordPress show code in a post without interpreting it, you have to do ONE of three things:

  1. Use special character codes to replace angle brackets of tags.
  2. Use the HTML tag <pre></pre> around the code.
  3. Use a plugin to highlight the code syntax.

1. Special Character Codes

Angle brackets, < or >, are what WordPress uses to identify code, whether it’s HTML, inline styles of CSS, or PHP. Content inside angle brackets is interpreted as code by virtue of placement inside the brackets. Instead of interpreting this code we want WordPress to show the code to the site visitors and we can use special character codes to do that.

Character codes are special sequences of letters or digits that are used to represent textual characters. Every character that we see on the screen, including uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols like <, >, #, $, %, ^, & or *, can be represented by character codes, sometimes called character entities.

Using character codes in posts looks a little strange in the editing panel, but when a browser comes across these codes they are interpreted and their textual equivalent is shown on the screen.

ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) character codes were developed to represent text in electronic devices and they follow a specific format. The format is that each character entity starts with an ampersand and ends with a semi-colon. The codes are a couple to a few letters or numbers. Numbered character codes always have a hash symbol right after the opening ampersand. Some entities can be represented by either numbered or named codes.

Examples of special character codes:

Character name Character symbol Character ASCII Code
left angle bracket < &lt;
right angle bracket > &gt;
ampersand & &amp;
dollar sign $ &#36;
long dash &mdash;
short dash &ndash;
double quotes " &quot;
at sign @ &#64;

If you need to find a code for language sets other than English, try the unicode site for all the code charts you’ll ever need. There, you can find numeric codes for fun game pieces, like chess, mahjong or checkers, horoscope symbols, smiley faces, weather symbols, music notes, and much more.

Take caution: Just because you can enter a special code to represent a symbol, that doesn’t mean your computer will let you see it. Many operating systems will not have the proper fonts installed to make use of all of these codes, especially if they represent symbols that aren’t on your keyboard. Stick to the ASCII codes as many of the unicodes won’t be seen by your site visitors.

2. HTML tag: <pre>

Perhaps you’d like to show a block of HTML code on your post and have it shown as text. To make sure that your block of code is not interpreted as actual code, wrap it with <pre></pre> tags. The <pre> tag will change the appearance of the code into a monospace font, just like <code> does, but the difference is that <pre> also illustrates the code exactly as it was typed. All text, characters, spaces and line feeds will be reproduced exactly how they were entered. No code will be run when it’s protected inside the opening <pre> and closing </pre> tags.

3. Syntax Highlighter Plugins

A final way to illustrate code in a WordPress post or page is to use a plugin to highlight the code. Several plugins are available for syntax highlighting purposes.

One that I have been using lately is called Crayon Syntax Highlighter. It’s a great plugin that will colorize or highlight code that you wrap with shortcodes. There are lots of options if you want fine control over the color scheme. Themes come with the plugin so you have several choices for making your code look good.

There are two modes where you can highlight code differently using shortcodes, [crayon][/crayon] and [plain][/plain]. Use [plain] shortcodes when the colorized crayon is overkill or when you just want to show a small section of code. Crayon Syntax Highlighter supports a wide range of languages, including HTML, CSS, PHP and JavaScript, for starters.

The colorful [crayon] shortcode is controlled by options where you can pick the colors that you want for representing different sections or purposes in your code. Inline crayons are supported so you could put a line of code within a line of text and the code would be colorized.

Some other popular code-highlighting plugins include SyntaxHighlighter Evolved, WP-Syntax, and CodeColorer. I don’t have any personal experience with these plugins, but they are listed high in popularity at the WordPress Plugin Directory.

Need to Execute Code in a Post?

If what you’re really after is to put executable code in a post or WordPress Page, check out this post on executing PHP in WordPress blogs.

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