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[whatwg] Problems with the definition of <cite>

From: Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis <bhawkeslewis@googlemail.com>
Date: Tue, 16 Jan 2007 11:46:28 +0000
Message-ID: <1168947988.6483.67.camel@galahad>
Matthew Paul Thomas wrote:

> There are other problems in WA1's current definition of <cite>
> <http://www.whatwg.org/specs/web-apps/current-work/#the-cite>. It says:
>      This is the correct way to do it:
>          <p><q>This is correct!</q>, said <cite>Ian</cite>.</p>
> Despite this being consistent with the example given in the HTML 4 
> specification, it is not compatible with the Web (except for the tiny 
> part of it found on diveintomark.org and its imitators). All noticable 
> graphical browsers default to cite {font-style: italic}, and it is 
> inappropriate to italicize someone's name just because you're quoting 
> them. 

Says who? There are even situations where this would be appropriate in
modern English, which seems to be your frame of reference here. For
example, when cited as the source of a quotation from a transcript in
British legal writing: "Counsel's name should appear in upper-and
lower-case italics" (Oxford Guide to Style (ISBN 0-19-869175-0), 423).

> Therefore, that's not what Web authors 

Notorious for their understandable errors.

> -- or even HTML reference authors 

Justly notorious for promoting such mistakes through misinformation.

> -- understand <cite> to be for.
> <http://htmlhelp.com/reference/html40/phrase/cite.html>
> <http://webdesign.about.com/od/htmltags/p/bltags_cite.htm>
> <http://urlx.org/microsoft.com/eec70>

Sorry, I can't take MSDN seriously. They don't even correct clear errors
when informed about them (and I /have/ told them about this one):


If MSDN is supposed to be the measure for HTML5, we might as well pack
it in, since they'll misrepresent whatever the spec says anyhow. Also, I
think you're being unfair to htmlhelp.com, who say:

> The CITE element is used to markup citations, such as titles of
> magazines or newspapers, ship names, references to other sources, and
> quotation attributions. Visual browsers typically render CITE as
> italic text, but authors can suggest a rendering using style sheets.

This description is /entirely/ compatible with the usage under
discussion ("quotation attributions"). W3Schools' laconic explanation
("Defines a citation") is equally compatible:


(Amusingly, W3Schools seems to think we should be replacing all these
nice semantic elements with span: "they are not deprecated [!], but it
is possible to achieve a much richer effect using style sheets.")

> WA1 continues:
>      This is also wrong, because the title and the name are not
>      references or citations:
>          <p>My favourite book is <cite>The Reality
>          Dysfunction</cite> by <cite>Peter F. Hamilton</cite>.</p>
>      This is correct, because even though the source is not quoted,
>      it is cited:
>          <p>According to <cite>the Wikipedia article on
>          HTML</cite>, HTML is defined in formal specifications
>          that were developed and published throughout the
>          1990s.</p>
> This is also incompatible with the Web, again because nobody would want 
> "the Wikipedia article on HTML" italicized unless they were emphasizing 
> it. On the other hand, if browser developers decided /en masse/ to 
> deitalicize <cite> by default, it would have no presentation at all, so 
> many fewer people would bother using it at all.


> I think a more compatible and visually obvious (if less semantically 
> obvious) definition of <cite> is marking up the name of a work: a book, 
> film, exhibition, game, etc.

You're arguing for changing the semantic meaning of an HTML element
based on a set of modern English typographic conventions about the
formatting of citations. This line of argument is self-contradictory

(1) Modern English typographic conventions are crystal clear that the
entire reference is the citation, /not/ just or even especially the
italicized part.

(2) Modern English typographic conventions do not always use italics for
the name of a work. For example, by the Oxford Guide to Style (ISBN
0-19-869175-0), the titles of articles, orations, unpublished works,
treaties, parliamentary statutes (and in British legal writing, even US
statutes), European secondary legislation, books of the Bible
and /suwar/ of the Koran, and rabbinical works that have become
nicknames (on this, see p. 541) are not italicized, and those of poems
frequently are not.

It is also parochial, since conventions in other languages (of course)
vary. For example, in Russian bibliographies, book and journal titles
are set in upright script not italics, and in Russian body text they are
placed in guillemets, along with picture titles (Oxford Guide, 335-6,
339, 341). In German, roman not italic is used for article and book
titles, often without quotation marks (Oxford Guide, 290).

The /only/ way we will get browsers to display citations in the manner
expected by the user is with language-sensitive styling of markup that
differentiates the different components of citations (names, article
titles, journal titles, page numbers, etc) such as hCite promises to
provide. The <cite> element alone is far too coarse a tool for this job.

Benjamin Hawes-Lewis
Received on Tuesday, 16 January 2007 03:46:28 UTC

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