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All That We Can Leave Behind

All That We Can Leave Behind

April 16, 2003

Last month I promised an article on the venerable <img> tag, which has been dropped from XHTML 2.0. It was supposed to be a gentle introduction to "stuff we lose in XHTML 2.0, and what we gain in return". However, during the course of researching, I realized that it was turning out to be not so introductory after all. So you'll have to wait another month for that.

There are several key elements and attributes that are slated to be dropped from XHTML 2.

  1. <br /> has been dropped, replaced by <l>...</l>.
  2. The inline style attribute has been dropped, but there are still plenty of ways to define styles.
  3. <img /> has been dropped, replaced by <object>...</object>. As we'll see in next month's article, this may present some serious migration difficulties.
  4. HTML forms have been dropped, replaced by XForms. This is such a major change that it also deserves its own article.

The q element has also been dropped, replaced by <quote>; but nobody uses <q> because Internet Explorer for Windows doesn't support it: it's hardly even worth mentioning, except for completeness.

Lines or Breaks?

<br/> is dead; long live <br/>. Certainly one of the most abused elements in HTML, and later XHTML, <br/>'s fame dates back to the Netscape 4 era, when CSS was sketchy at best and "using the proper element" meant you were a chump whose pages looked like amateur scribblings. To migrate from <br/>, the first thing to do is see if there's a more suitable element.

For example, if you wanted a list of links along the side of your page, every Netscape 4-era coder knew that you couldn't use proper list markup and CSS, because Netscape 4 would force those unsightly list bullets on you, and no amount of CSS could override them. Even in later versions when this was fixed, it would still stubbornly leave an indented left margin. So nobody used proper list markup: everyone either used tables for layout with each link in a separate table cell or they used <br/>, like this:

<a href="/">Home</a><br />
<a href="/about/">About</a><br />
<a href="/news/">News</a><br />

Although this is technically valid markup (it will pass the W3C's XHTML validator), your life will be easier in the long run if you switch to using real list markup. With the right mix of CSS, you can make it look exactly like it used to and no one will notice the difference. (Okay, that's not entirely true. As you might expect, this fails in Netscape 4.) This is what it might look like using real list markup:

<style type="text/css">
ul.nl {
  list-style: none;
  margin-left: 0;
  padding-left: 0;
}
</style>
...
<ul class="nl">
<li><a href="/">Home</a></li>
<li><a href="/about/">About</a></li>
<li><a href="/news/">News</a></li>
</ul>

This works today in XHTML 1 and will continue to work in XHTML 2. However, XHTML 2 defines a new element, nl, specifically for navigation lists. If you upgrade now to use real list markup, it will be a simple matter of search-and-replace to upgrade to the <nl> form in XHTML 2:

<style type="text/css">
nl {
  list-style: none;
  margin-left: 0;
  padding-left: 0;
}
</style>
...
<nl>
<li><a href="/">Home</a></li>
<li><a href="/about/">About</a></li>
<li><a href="/news/">News</a></li>
</nl>

There is one use of <br/> which is legitimate and useful: marking up lines of code, poetry, or anything else where explicit linebreaks are part of semantics of the content. For example,

<p class="program">
program helloworld(input, output);<br />
begin <br />
  writeln("Hello world");<br />
end.<br />
</p>

In XHTML 2.0, this would become a sequence of l (for "line") elements:

<p class="program">
<l>program p(input, output);</l>
<l>begin</l>
<l>  writeln("Hello world");</l>
<l>end.</l>
</p>

There's not really a whole lot you can do to prepare yourself for this migration. You could theoretically wrap each line of code in an additional tag, like <span class="line">...</span>, to make search-and-replace easier when the time comes. Whether this is worth the bandwidth -- both in human effort and in bits over the wire -- is up to you.

A Loss of Style

More Dive Into XML Columns

Identifying Atom

XML on the Web Has Failed

The Atom Link Model

Normalizing Syndicated Feed Content

Atom Authentication

The second major change in XHTML 2.0 is the loss of the inline style attribute. Currently in XHTML 1, there are three different ways to style an element. First, define styles in a separate CSS file, and link to it in the <head> section of your page. Second, define styles directly in the <head> section of your page, with a <style type="text/css"> element. Third, define styles directly on an element itself, with a style attribute.

In XHTML 2.0, the first and second options will be available, but the third will not. This has been a relatively controversial decision, since inline styles on individual elements are very useful. But as Ian Hickson argues, the style attribute is mostly useful in situations where XHTML 2 is not meant to be used, and it encourages the wrong behavior in general. He writes:

  1. It encourages a mindset that considers the visual media to be the most important one.
  2. It discourages the development of alternate stylesheets.
  3. It encourages a mindset that presentation is more important than semantics, which hurts accessibility.
  4. It allows authors to use the wrong semantic element and fix the error by changing the style inline, instead of picking the right element.

If you've been using the style attribute on documents that you want to migrate to XHTML 2, here are some possible strategies. All of these work now in XHTML 1 and will continue to work unchanged in XHTML 2.

  • ID attributes. Every element in XHTML (1 and 2) can have an id attribute which uniquely defines it within a document. You may already be using this if you're using scripting, but it's also useful for styling elements. If you're currently using a particular inline style just once within a page, give that element an ID attribute instead; then define CSS rules for that ID.

    For example, if your markup looks like this:

    <p>Learning the <span style="font-variant: small-caps; 
    font-weight: bold">ABC</span>s of markup is easy; 
    the hard stuff comes later.</p>

    You could enclose the style definition within the <style> which is within the <head> of your document. Then simply use an ID attribute instead:

    <head>
    ...
    <style type="text/css">
    #abc {
      font-variant: small-caps;
      font-weight: bold
    }
    </style>
    </head>
    <body>
    ...
    <p>Learning the <span id="abc">ABC</span>s of
    markup is easy; the hard stuff comes later.</p>
  • Class attributes. If you have multiple elements on a page that you want to style similarly, but there is no specific predefined element that is appropriate, use a class attribute. Expanding on our previous example, if your markup looks like this:

    <p>Learning the <span style="font-variant: small-caps; 
    font-weight: bold">ABC</span>s of markup is easy; once you get to the 
    <span style="font-variant: small-caps; font-weight: bold">XYZ</span>s, 
    it gets more interesting.</p>

    You can combine these styles and put class attributes on each similar phrase:

    <head>
    ...
    <style type="text/css">
    .capword {
      font-variant: small-caps;
      font-weight: bold
    }
    </style>
    </head>
    <body>
    ...
    
    <p>Learning the <span class="capword">ABC</span>s of 
    markup is easy; once you get to the <span class="capword">
    XYZ</span>s, it gets more interesting.</p>
  • Multiple class attributes. Elements are not limited to a single class; you can define multiple classes, separated by spaces. This allows you to define more specific styles, and then mix and match as needed by defining multiple classes on each element. For example:

    <p>Learning the <span style="font-variant: small-caps; 
    font-weight: bold; background-color: transparent; color: red">ABC</span>s of 
    markup is easy; once you get to the <span style="font-variant: small-caps; 
    font-weight: bold; background-color: transparent; color: green">XYZ</span>s, 
    it gets more interesting.</p>

    Could become this:

    <head>
    ...
    <style type="text/css">
    .smallcaps {
      font-variant: small-caps
    }
    .bold {
      font-weight: bold
    }
    .red, .green {
      background-color: transparent;
    }
    .red {
      color: red
    }
    .green {
      color: green
    }
    </style>
    </head>
    <body>
    ...
    
    <p>Learning the <span class="smallcaps bold red">ABC</span>
    s of markup is easy; once you get to the <span class="smallcaps 
    bold green">XYZ</span>s, it gets more interesting.</p>

Next month: the long, sad history of the <object> element.



1 to 4 of 4
  1. getting carried away with multiple classes
    2005-01-13 21:55:00 spook
  2. Dropping of inline styles
    2004-11-21 05:26:22 RafeH
  3. q tag
    2003-05-05 04:35:42 R. Ivan Linderman
  4. upgrading to XHTML 2
    2003-04-18 18:10:16 Bill Burris
1 to 4 of 4