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RDF Handling of XML fragments

From: Brian McBride <bwm@hplb.hpl.hp.com>
Date: 18 Jul 2003 18:52:39 +0100
To: i18n <w3c-i18n-ig@w3.org>
Cc: Martin Duerst <duerst@w3.org>, rdf core <w3c-rdfcore-wg@w3.org>
Message-Id: <1058550759.2525.119.camel@dhcp-91-136.hpl.hp.com>

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.

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


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>".

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.

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>".

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.

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>")

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.

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>

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.
  - It means that RDF cannot represent arbritary XML fragments, only
those with an outer <wrapper> element.
  - it is likely to give API designers some grief, because they will try
to hide the wrapper element from client code.

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

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.


Received on Friday, 18 July 2003 13:53:24 UTC

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