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Re: RDF Handling of XML fragments

From: Martin Duerst <duerst@w3.org>
Date: Mon, 21 Jul 2003 14:22:09 -0400
Message-Id: <>
To: Brian McBride <bwm@hplb.hpl.hp.com>, i18n <w3c-i18n-ig@w3.org>
Cc: rdf core <w3c-rdfcore-wg@w3.org>

Hello Brian,

Many thanks for laying out these arguments again in detail.
Some comments below.

At 18:52 03/07/18 +0100, Brian McBride wrote:

>Over the past few weeks, there has been discussion of RDF's handling of
>XML fragments.  I would like to take this opportunity to try to make the
>case that the current design is acceptable.  In doing this, I am
>speaking on my own behalf; I have not reviewed this message with
>I will argue that:
>   - the current design meets the requirements, including those that have
>emerged as most important to I18N during recent discussions
>   - where the current design has seemed less than ideal to I18N, it is
>so for good reason and in ways that best support internationalization.
>   - it is an acceptable tradeoff of various conflicting design
>For this discussion, we need to know the following about RDF:
>   - RDF is a language for stating the values of properties of resources
>   - RDF's syntax is a graph where the nodes are either resources or
>literal values linked by arcs that represent properties
>   - sometimes those literal values are fragments of XML, which often
>represent text
>The term "strings of characters" is used for sequences unicode
>characters.  The term "text" is used for sequences of characters which
>may have additional attributes such as language, font, weight, italic
>A key point of concern from I18N's perspective is that handling of text
>should be uniform; that there should be no discontinuity when additional
>attributes in the form of markup is introduced to text.
>So for example, if we have a property whose value is the title of a
>document, then we should not have to use a different type of value when
>the property value is markup, rather than when it is a simple string of
>An important point to note here, is that we do not expect much RDF to be
>written by hand.  It will be written by tools.  Thus any such
>discontinuity needs to be understood by programmers, not by end users.
>However, lets accept that, even for programmers, such a discontinuity is
>a bad thing.

Yes indeed.

>It has been suggested that RDF plain literals and RDF XMl literals
>should be the same thing, so that no discontunuity between simple text
>and marked up text exists.  Unfortunately, all the current RDF
>implementations of which I am aware, treat plain literals as sequences
>of characters, not as text.  To see the difference, consider the XML
>describing a property value in RDF/XML
>   <eg:prop>&lt;em<&gt;></eg:prop>

[I think this should have been

>This describes a property whose value is "<em>".  If plain literals were
>text, this property value should be "&lt;em&gt;" to distinguish it from
>the markup "<em>".

I think there are various aspects here, which should be carefully
- The question of what these things represent. Whether written as '<'
   or as '&lt;', the first character above always represents the 'smaller
   than' character. This is the most important question.
- The question of how to represent these things in the graph and in
   n-triples. This is relevant because the spec has to define it.
- The question of how to implement these things. Implementations have
   to observeably follow the spec, but apart from that, they can do
   what they want. (Your spec does not define an API, or a processing

Over the prolonged discussion that we have had, I have found a general
lack of understanding for the distinctions above. (Not that I want to
say that everybody always has ignored them.)

>The fact is that to start treating plain literals as markup would be to
>break every implementation of RDF of which I am aware.  Whatever folks
>think was said in the RDF M&S specification, most if not all
>implementors interpretted it to mean that plain literals were sequences
>of characters, not text or markup.

Just to give you some background, the Web, and I18N in particular, has
had at times had to deal with implementations that all did the same thing,
and we concluded that all of them were wrong, and they have in the meantime
all changed for the better. For example, none of the version 3 browsers
did anything close to the basics laid out in the character model.

>Rather than break existing implementations, the RDFCore design offers an
>alternative way of representing text.  Plain literals are simply
>sequences of characters, but XML Literals represent XML, including
>markup and text.  This text may be a simple sequence of characters, but
>it may also contain markup, and the distinction between markup and
>content is correctly maintained.  So, the property with an XML Literal
>   <eg:prop rdf:parseType="Literal">&lt;em&gt;</eg:prop>
>describes an XML Literal "&lt;em&gt;" which is properly different from:
>   <eg:prop rdf:parseType="Literal"><em></eg:prop>
>that describes an XML Literal whose value is "<em>".

The distinction between characters ('&lt;em&gt;') and markup ('<em>')
is definitely correct.

>Thus users who wish to have a uniform mechanism for representing text,
>with no discontinuity between simple text and text with markup that I18N
>desires, should use this parseType="Literal" mechanism.  RDFCore are
>planning to modify the RDF primer and concepts documents to bring this
>fact to the attention of users.

There is a very important point here that you seem to ignore.
The average user/programmer will just take the first best feature
they see (i.e. plain literals) and run with them. After all, they
have language information, so they seem to be internationalized,
and they seem to be text, not only a string of characters.
The average user/programmer in America or Europe will not have
any motivation to use XML Literals for text, and once they hack
ahead, it will already be too late (with the current design).
Yet the Web is supposed to be a medium where things work together
across cultures and languages, and RDF is supposed to be a technology
where it is easy to bring data together from different sources.

The "let's document it in the manual" trick works for optional
features that users with special needs can use *on top of* what
the general user is doing, but not to get everybody do the right
thing from the start.

The totally controlled scenario ("Librarian starts to use RDF,
thinks about what to use for <title>, thinks that there are some
books with Math formulae in the title, decides to use XML Literals
throughout for <title>") will unfortunately be very infrequent.
The gradual scenario ("Librarian starts to use RDF, starts with
plain litelars for <title>, encodes a few thousand books, then
finds a book with a Math formula, reads the details in the spec,
and finds out that she should have used XML Literals from the
start, but is now busted") will unfortunately be much more

>And so I claim that I have made the first point of my argument, that RDF
>provides a uniform mechanism for representing text as required by I18N.
>Turning to the second point.
>Perhaps it could have been made clear in M&S that literals were really
>text, not just strings of characters.  But it wasn't, and so one reason
>for this design is to avoid breaking existing RDF implementations.
>Another concern of I18N has been that the value of an XML literal is
>unaffected by an inscope xml:lang tag when written as RDF/XML.  Thinking
>of this from the point of view of the RDF graph, then either:
>   a an XML literal is a pair (lang, XML frag)
>   b the lang tag is part of the XML frag
>Considering (a) first.  Think of a graph containing the xml literal
>   (en, "<span xml:lang='fr'>chat</span>")

Well, I hope nobody in the RDF Core WG has ever tried to claim
that RDF is built so that the only statements that can be made
are those that make sense, or so that only the most suscinct and
clear statements can be made.

We can as well have:

   (en, "Ceci n'est pas de l'Anglais.")

[the text is French and says: This is not English]
This doesn't make sense as a plain literal, nor would it make
sense as an XML literal. Yet it is possible as a plain literal,
and an equivalent of it is also possible in XML literals in
the current design:

         "<span xml:lang='en'>Ceci n'est pas de l'Anglais.</span>"

>Here we have introduced another discontinuity, this time in the handling
>of language tags.  Implementations are likely to be developed, that when
>they do a search for a literal containing the substring "chat"@en, i.e.
>"chat" with a lang tag "en", they will return the literal in this
>example, which is of course the wrong thing to do, particularly from an
>internationalization point of view.

Yes. Some implementations will do the right thing, and some
will do the wrong thing. In the long term, the correct ones
will win, because they do the right thing. The right thing is
not really much more difficult to do than in the current design;
implementations have all the necessary code available.

>Perhaps then, (b) is better, to add the lang tag to the xml fragment
>itself.  Because the fragment may be mixed text, e.g. "a<em>b</em>c",
>there may be no outer element to attach the lang tag to, so we must
>invent one, by adding a wrapper element.  The literal described by
>   <rdf:Description xml:lang="en">
>     <eg:prop rdf:parseType="Literal">a<em>b</em>c</eg:prop>
>   </rdf:Description>
>is "<wrapper xml:lang='en'><a<em>b</em>c</wrapper>".
>This approach does provide a uniform handling of the language tag but
>has a number of other disadvantages.
>   - The appearance of this extra wrapper element will surprise the user.

Only if the user actually sees it. Defining that the "<wrapper>"
is how we manage to simplify RDF Model theory, and actually storing
the <wrapper> in a database, and actually showing the <wrapper> to
an user, are rather different things, and should be carefully kept

>   - It means that RDF cannot represent arbritary XML fragments, only
>those with an outer <wrapper> element.

Sorry, but totally wrong. RDF can represent arbitrary (well-formed)
fragments. It puts things in a wrapper, but it represents the things
inside the wrapper (plus the language information), not the thing
with the wrapper.

>   - it is likely to give API designers some grief, because they will try
>to hide the wrapper element from client code.

- They would try to do the right thing.
- There seems to be some need for guidance on RDF APIs. If that's the
   case, it should be noted as work to be done in the near future, rather
   than trying to do a half-way job on the back of internationalization.

>Whilst, to be fair it is a judgement call, it seems to me that it is a
>much cleaner design to require the user that cares about the lang tag in
>an XML fragment, to explicitly specify it in that fragment.  The use
>case we are most concerned about is text, and XHTML conviently provides
>the <span> element which can be harmlessly inserted to carry the lang

Just a few lines above, you worried (wrongly) about RDF not being able
to represent arbitrary XML fragments. Now you argue that it would be
okay for users to change their fragments.

>It is correct to argue that this requires the redundant specification of
>lang tags in when the RDF graph is written as RDF/XML.  Each individual
>fragment must carry its own lang tag definition.  This could be a burden
>on the user writing RDF/XML by hand, but here I fall back on the RDF
>design centre, that writing RDF/XML by hand is rare, and this is not a
>significant burden for the tool developer.
>Another argument against this design is that it will confuse those
>experienced with XML when they read this automatically generated RDF/XML
>who will expect that an inscope lang tag will affect an xml literal
>fragment.  However, RDF writers typically don't use global lang tags, so
>the question is unlikely to arise.   We could require an xml:lang=""
>attribute next to each parseType="Literal which would remove any such
>confusion, but I suspect that we would agree that is not a useful thing
>to do.
>So here I have argued that the simpler design of regarding XML fragments
>in an RDF graph as isolated from context, and requiring them to create
>any context on which they rely is superior to both options (a) and (b),
>and that the disadvantages are not significant.
>I suggest that:
>   - the current RDFCore design meets I18N's key requirements
>   - it is an acceptable tradeoff of various conflicting design
>   - I18N should support it
>If you are still here, thank you for your patience.

To conclude, I'm sorry but I think that your arguments are partially
wrong and partially weak, that they do not take into account the desired
and expected deployment patterns of RDF applications and data, and that
they are no excuse for unilateral decisions at a very late stage after
years of collaboration and trust.

Regards,    Martin.
Received on Monday, 21 July 2003 14:33:43 UTC

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