USFM – Unified Standard Format Markers

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What are Standard Format Markers?

In general terms, a markup language is a special notation for identifying the components and structure of an electronic document. It combines extra information about the text together with the text itself. The extra information is what is expressed using markup. Markup can also include information about the intended presentation of the text, or instructions for how a software process should handle the text. A good markup system is easily identified as separate from the text itself.

Standard Format Markers have been used for many years within the Bible translation community as a method for identifying the unique textual elements which exist within an electronic scripture document. SFMs start with a backslash character “\” and end with the next space. Over time, many local “standards” for SFM use were developed, adapted, and used, for supporting the varied requirements of Bible translation and publishing projects around the globe.

History of USFM

The divergent use of SFMs led to a variety of problems – most notably the challenges associated with sharing text or related text processing tools among entities, departments, or partner organizations. Separate and ongoing maintenance of duplicated tools and procedures, which were required for managing the flow of the text through its life-cycle, became costly and very difficult to support.

In March 2002 a working group was established within the United Bible Societies with the mandate of crafting a unified specification for SFM use across 4 UBS areas. Having one SFM standard would provide numerous benefits:

  • Allow more thought and effort to be put into developing just one set of tools and utilities to be shared by all projects:
    • Tools for text checking and analysis.
    • Tools for developing supporting textual resources such as concordances and indexes.
    • Tools for streamlining the publishing process.
  • Eliminate or minimize duplication of effort in providing these tools.
  • Allow better sharing of both tools and data.
  • Allow Paratext users to use one tested and proven stylesheet.
  • Prepare the project for a smoother transition to other markup formats or future technologies.

Ideally an SFM standard would have as one of its goals that of marking common scriptural element types, and not formatting (presentation) information. USFM has attempted to “unify” a long history of SFM type scripture markup “standards”, some of which were more or less strict in their tolerance for format-oriented markers. The primary focus in USFM development was on unification, not markup creation. What this means is that USFM inherits support for both the positive (and some negative) aspects of preexisting SFM marker use. The USFM working group did not wish to create an unmanageable conversion task for legacy SFM encoded texts.

USFM Documentation

You can find links to USFM documentation on this page.

Paratext Stylesheets

Starting in Paratext 9, the default USFM stylesheet usfm.sty should not change in projects. If a change is needed in a stylesheet, it should be overridden with a custom stylesheet “custom.sty” that is placed in the project directory. Look in Paratext help for more information.

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