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Some Notes On XHTML 2

From: Ryan J. Bury <ryan@rjbsoftware.co.uk>
Date: Sun, 22 Oct 2006 15:49:18 +0100
Message-Id: <55rtb3$6dlfu3@mk-smarthost-2.mail.uk.tiscali.com>
To: "www-html-editor" <www-html-editor@w3.org>

Dear XHTML2 editors,

   I've been reading through the XHTML2 working draft recently, and I'm very pleased to see the direction in which the markup language is progressing: the stricter and clearer definitions of tags, and the shift away from any form of styling being included in the markup are very good to see.  I'm certainly looking forward to being able to migrate to XHTML2 and CSS3!

   However, there are one or two issues which I've noticed regarding the specification which appear to my eye to be oversights, though it's possible I'm re-stating a known issue or even have missed some already intended purpose of existing markup (in which case, please accept my apologies) - these issues primarily relate to the cross-over between styling and markup implicit in italics.

   In previous versions of HTML, there was an "<i>" tag, which was a meaningless styling device, and has quite rightly been removed from XHTML2.  In its place, the correct markup for the most common use of italics - emphasis - is the "<em>" tag, which is much more sensible.  However, there are in fact one or two other explicit uses of italics to markup implications, in the English language and many others, for which there is now no explicit tag.

   Firstly, and most importantly for use on the internet, I think, is the use of italics to denote the title of an artistic work, when not necessarily citing it.  For example, there is a huge difference in meaning between the sentences:

"Yesterday, I saw The Lord Of The Rings."
....and...
"Yesterday, I saw <i>The Lord Of The Rings</i>."

   The first example could be understood to mean that I witnessed a person who was, in all actuality, the Lord Of The Rings, whereas the second, with the title of the work in question marked up in italics, would suggest that I had watched the films of Tolkein's books.

   Now, under XHTML 2, the closest tag to make this distinction is the "<cite>" tag, but actually, in the sentences above, the speaker is not "citing" the film, as such - merely mentioning it.  Now, I'm aware that the distinction is highly pedantic, and you will likely suggest that the <cite> tag is in fact the correct markup for this use, my point is that the specific meaning implied by the italics in this case is just that the text within the tags is the title of an artistic work, rather than that it is a citation, and I feel that there should be a tag to define a title of this kind which is distinct from "<cite>".

Some more reasons that I feel this distinction is necessary:

1) Many artistic works are, for instance, images or sculptures, and would rarely be "cited" from in the same way as a text;

2) Many texts from which one would "cite" are not in fact artistic/creative works, but simply documents whose titles may not even be contained withing the "<cite>" tags.  For example, in the following sentence: "This information can be found in Dave's <cite cite="http://dave.com/article1.htm">article</cite> on the subject."  - here, the "<cite>" tag is used (I think) correctly by the Working Draft description of its use, but the contained text is not the title of the article, and so has a very different meaning to marking up the title of a work.

   The second use of italics when not (exactly) used for emphasis is in the situation where a writer uses a single word or phrase from a different language to that of the surrounding text, but the meaning is fully understandable within the language in which it is embedded, and so the author does not wish to markup that particular phrase alone as being in a different language, but merely to emphasise the fact that the root of the word is foreign.

   For instance, the following phrases:

"This item works fine on the test-bed, but how would it operate <i>in situ</i>?"
"Do we know whether this attack matches the killer's <i>modus operandi</i>?"
"I'll meet you <i>en route</i>."

   In all those examples, the italicised phrase is fully acceptable and understandable within the English language, but remains a non-English expression, and is so marked up as such.  I don't feel that specifically marking such minor phrases using language attributes is helpful - and in fact, it could be confusing, as the language of the text does not actually change; the phrases are simply borrowed into the text.

   Therefore, I feel that some form of tag to denote this use of language should be included in XHTML2.

   The final, and somewhat more obcscure, perhaps, use of italics in English for which there is currently no explicit markup in XHTML2, is the denotation of a phrase as the name of a vehicle (especially a boat or plane).  In writing, it is common practice to display the name of a ship, for instance, in italics:

"I was about to board the <i>Invincible</i>."
"The <i>Oceana</i> was a little boat, and old at that, but she remained seaworthy nevertheless."

   Again, the use of italics here is not merely for styling, but to specifically markup the meaning of the enclosed text, and therefore I think, again, that there should be a tag which can be used to denote the title of a ship or other vehicle (or other similar meanings which I may have overlooked).

   One final suggestion before I finish: as the "span" element could potentially be used very extensively now that it is to be used for all minor inline styling, perhaps the name of the tag could be shortened?  "Span" is four characters, and if used many times throughout a document, could heavily increase the size of the file, therefore tempting some bandwidth-concerned authors to fall back on the obsolete and deprecated styling tags such as <i>, <b> and <u> for simple common styling.  If "<span>" were just "<s>" or "<sp>", for instance, it would make it much quicker to write, and much less intrusive-looking when reading source.  But that really a minor issue, of course - I just thought I'd mention it!

   Anyway, I hope my points have been of some interest and use, and I would be very pleased to receive a reply or discuss these items further.  In the meantime, I wish you all the best, and look forward to hearing from you soon (and to the release of XHTML2!)

Thanks & regards,
   Ryan J. Bury
Received on Monday, 23 October 2006 00:37:47 GMT

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