Markdown syntax highlighting

Querétaro, México. Posted in coding.

This morning I've been working on adding syntax highlighting to the code blocks on this website. I'd like to share my findings.

Markdown it

I chose the markdown it library to parse my markdown files, as it has a highlight option built in.

import Markdown from 'markdown-it';
import highlight from './highlight';
const md = new Markdown({ highlight });
const parseMarkdown = str => md( str );

highlight takes the form of a function.

 * Adds meaningful markup to code block so we
 * can later style with CSS
 * @param {string} code – Code block
 * @param {string} id – The code block's language identified. e.g. js or css
 * @return {string} Code block now with meaningful markup
const highlight = ( code, id ) => {
  // ... do some stuff 
  return code;


Highlights is what Atom uses internally to add meaningful markup to your code, so they can make it look all pretty.

Note that Highlights only works with Node. Since I am doing this server-side, that's not a problem for me.

import Highlights from 'highlights';
const highlighter = new Highlights();
const highlight = ( code, id ) => {
  // Only attempt to highlight if we're 
  // passed a language identifier 
  if ( id ) {
    try {
      // This is where the magic happens 
      return highlighter.highlightSync({
        // This is self explanatory 
        fileContents: code,
        // Don't freak out – I'll explain what 
        // getScope does in minute 
        scopeName: getScope( id ),
    } catch ( error ) {
  return code;

Get your grammar right

The term grammar in these circles means what language the code block is thought to be.

Each Highlights language package has a scopeName defined.

In the highlightSync method above, we pass in a scopeName property that we have derived from the code block's language identifier.

When highlightSync is called, the available language packages are iterated over and a match is attempted on the scopeName's. The first match wins, and that language package is used to markup the code block.

Therefore, our getScope function exists to map the language identifier passed into the highlight function, to the scopeName of the desired language package.

const getScope = id => {
  switch ( id ) {
    case 'html':
      return 'text.html.basic';
    case 'js':
      return 'source.js.jsx';
    case 'txt':
      return 'text.plain';
      return `source.${ id }`;


The Javascript language package that ships by default with Highlights hasn't been updated in a while. And if it doesn't understand destructuring then I'm screwed.

Fear not. Highlights has a method that lets us define additional grammars. For example, language-babel.

  modulePath: path.resolve(
    __dirname, '../../..', 'node_modules', 'language-babel', 'package.json'


Our markdown code blocks now have meaningful markup. All that's left is for some styling.

In theory, you should be able to add the CSS file of your favorite Atom syntax theme. I like to keep it minimal, and have added a few styles of my own.

Talk to me on twitter @colinmeinke.

Hasta luego.

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