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Fwd: Questions on the Origin of BLOCKQUOTE

From: Sean B. Palmer <sean@miscoranda.com>
Date: Sat, 2 May 2009 17:09:48 +0100
Message-ID: <b6bb4d890905020909v4c46cba8h6b3f5970798a8ae5@mail.gmail.com>
To: www-talk <www-talk@w3.org>
Whoops, meant to send this to www-talk for fun too:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Sean B. Palmer <sean@miscoranda.com>
Date: Sat, May 2, 2009 at 5:06 PM
Subject: Questions on the Origin of BLOCKQUOTE
To: Dan Connolly <connolly@w3.org>
Cc: www-html <www-html@w3.org>

Hi Dan,

I'm investigating why BLOCKQUOTE was introduced to HTML. The two
earliest mentions of the element occur in a message and a document by


“I'm trying to keep up with all sorts of HTML ideas.  Some things can be
added to html.dtd without significant changes to W3 code (like adding a
BLOCKQUOTE tag for a new paragraph style). But for things that will
require changes to the architecture, I'm developing a separate DTD from
the descriptive html.dtd.”

— http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/www-talk/1992NovDec/0159
Re: The spec evolves...
Dan Connolly (connolly@pixel.convex.com)
Fri, 04 Dec 92 18:07:49 CST


<!ENTITY % bodyelement
        "P | A | %heading |
       | %literal">

— http://suika.fam.cx/gate/cvs/*checkout*/test/html.dtd?rev=1.3
Document Type Definition for the HyperText Markup Language
as used by the World Wide Web application (HTML DTD).
$Id: html.dtd,v 1.3 1993/01/07 00:38:36 connolly Exp $

Revision 1.2 of html.dtd dates to 1.2 1992/12/03, the day before the
message just quoted at (1), where it seems that you were trying to
keep up with suggestions for changes to HTML, and that BLOCKQUOTE was
one of those suggestions. On 7th January 1993, you checked in the new
html.dtd with BLOCKQUOTE included (2).

Neither of these mentions, however, reveal who suggested BLOCKQUOTE
and why. Was there any discussion surrounding its inclusion? What did
TimBL and others think of it? And how fast was W3 code updated? Why
was BLOCKQUOTE included whereas, perhaps, other suggestions fell by
the wayside?

What I'm trying to understand is how BLOCKQUOTE came to be included,
partially in order to better understand why and how it should be used
now. For example, one could easily have eschewed BLOCKQUOTE in favour
of usual typographical conventions:

<p>“First quoted paragraph.</p>
<p>“Second quoted paragraph.”</p>

An argument against this now is that BLOCKQUOTE gives you independence
of styling. Independence of styling was, however, not an option in
late 1992 when CSS was yet to be invented. Indeed, there are even
potential signs that BLOCKQUOTE did not win favour with users very
early on. In May 1993, Dave Raggett was asking whether people were
actually using the element:

“I am drafting an extended verion of the HTML standard and would
like to know if anyone is using the <BLOCKQUOTE> element for quoted
paragraphs. This element has a name greater than 8 characters
which could cause problems with some SGML parsers.”

— http://1997.webhistory.org/www.lists/www-talk.1993q2/0269.html

He suggested renaming it to QUOTE, and after apparently receiving no
reply on www-talk he actually called it BQ in HTML 3:


But then in HTML 3.2 it was back to BLOCKQUOTE, perhaps because by
this point there was an established user base and the SGML 8 character
problem had either been fixed, a workaround found, or was deemed


My suspicion is that BLOCKQUOTE follows the pattern of other early
elements, which try to introduce some level of independence from
style, giving a few suggestions as to how user agents may render it,
whilst still trying to provide a kind of reasonably well understood
meaning. Consider, for example, what HTML 2 says about BLOCKQUOTE:

“A typical rendering might be a slight extra left and right indent,
and/or italic font. The BLOCKQUOTE typically provides space above and
below the quote.

“Single-font rendition may reflect the quotation style of Internet
mail by putting a vertical line of graphic characters, such as the
greater than symbol (>), in the left margin.”

— http://www.w3.org/MarkUp/html-spec/html-spec_5.html#SEC5.5.4

Indentation was perhaps not available using any other element, but <I>
and <EM> were added to html.dtd v.1.2 along with BLOCKQUOTE, so those
at least could have been used instead for one of the suggested
renderings. The meaning of the element and the diversity of possible
stylings seems quite likely to have been important at that stage.

This original prominent approach to element design seems to have
fallen by the wayside due to consensus of styling amongst user agents
narrowing the diversity with which an element is styled. So with
BLOCKQUOTE, it came to be associated in authors' minds with
indentation rather than its meaning as an extended quotation: by HTML
4.01, there is a warning in the specification that people are using it
merely for indentational formatting with non-quotation semantics.

At any rate, much of this research is speculation, filling in the dots
between a few scant references in the record. Even if the dots are
filled in correctly, there may be extra rationale that I've missed. I
was hoping therefore that you might be able to piece together some
more information given your clearly very central involvement in the

Kindest regards,

Sean B. Palmer, http://inamidst.com/sbp/
Received on Saturday, 2 May 2009 16:10:30 UTC

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