It takes discipline to use HTML/XHTML content-based style tags because it is easier to simply think of how your text should look, not necessarily what it may also mean. Once you get started using content-based styles, your documents will be more consistent and better lend themselves to automated searching and content compilation.
First introduced in HTML 4.0, the
<abbr> tag indicates that the enclosed
text is an abbreviated form of a longer word or phrase. The browser
might use this information to change the way it renders the enclosed
text or substitute alternative text. Notice that we said
might—not all of the popular browsers currently
do anything to the text enclosed by the
<abbr> tag, and we can’t predict how
other browsers will implement the tag in the future.
indicates that the enclosed text is an acronym, an abbreviation
usually formed from the first letter of each word in a name or phrase,
such as HTML and IBM. Like
<abbr>, not all browsers change the
display of the
content-based style tag’s enclosed text.
<cite> tag usually
indicates that the enclosed text is a bibliographic citation, such as a book or magazine title. By
convention, the citation text is rendered in italics. See Figure 4-7 for how Internet
Explorer renders this source text:
While kumquats are not mentioned in Melville's <cite>Moby Dick</cite>, it is nonetheless apparent that the mighty cetacean represents the bitter "kumquat-ness" within every man. Indeed, when Ahab spears the beast, its flesh is tough, much like the noble fruit.
<cite> tag to
set apart any reference to another document, especially those in
traditional media, such as books, magazines, journal articles, and the
like. If an online version of the referenced work exists, you also
should enclose the citation within the
<a> tag in order to make it a
hyperlink to that online version.
<cite> tag also has
a hidden feature: it enables you or someone else to automatically
extract a bibliography from your documents. It is easy to envision a
browser that compiles tables of citations automatically, displaying
them as footnotes or as a separate document entirely. The semantics of
<cite> tag go far beyond
changing the appearance of the enclosed text; they enable the browser
to present the content to the user in a variety of useful ways.
Software code warriors have become accustomed to a
special style of text presentation for their source programs. The
<code> tag is for them. It
renders the enclosed text in a monospaced, teletype-style font such as Courier, familiar to most
programmers and readers of O’Reilly books such as this one.
This following bit of en
<code>ed text is rendered in a
monospaced font style by Firefox, as shown in Figure 4-8 (though the effect is
not dramatic, admittedly):
The array reference <code>a[i]</code> is identical to the pointer reference <code>*(a+i)</code>.
You should use the
<code> tag for text that represents
computer source code or other machine-readable content. While the
<code> tag usually just makes
text appear in a monospaced font, the implication is that it is source
code, and future browsers may add other display effects.[*]
For example, a programmer’s browser might look for
<code> segments and perform some
additional text formatting, such as special indentation of loops and
conditional clauses. If the only effect you desire is a monospaced
font, use the
<tt> tag. If
you want to display the programming code in rigidly formatted
monospaced text, use the
<pre> tag. [The <tt> Tag, 4.5.10]
tag defining instances of special terms or phrases. The popular
browsers typically display
<dfn> text in italics. In the future,
<dfn> might assist in
creating a document index or glossary.
For example, use the
<dfn> tag to introduce a new phrase to
When analyzing annual crop yields, <dfn>rind spectroscopy</dfn> may prove useful. By comparing the relative levels of saturated hydrocarbons in fruit from adjacent trees, rind spectroscopy has been shown to be 87% effective in predicting an outbreak of trunk dropsy in trees under four years old.
Notice that we delimit only the first occurrence of “rind
spectroscopy” with a
tag in the example. Good style tells us not to clutter the text with
highlighted text. As with the many other, content-related and physical
style tags, the fewer the better.[*] As a general style, especially in technical
documentation, set off new terms when they are first introduced to
help your readers better understand the topic at hand, but resist
tagging the terms thereafter.
tells the client browser to present the enclosed text with emphasis.
For nearly all browsers, this means the text is rendered in italic.
For example, the popular browsers will emphasize by italicizing the
words always and never in
the following HTML/XHTML source:
Kumquat growers must <em>always</em> refer to kumquats as "the noble fruit," <em>never</em> as just a "fruit."
Adding emphasis to your text is tricky business. Too little, and the emphatic phrases may be lost. Too much, and you lose the urgency. Like any seasoning, emphasis is best used sparingly.
Although invariably displayed in italic, the
<em> tag has broader implications as
well, and someday browsers may render emphasized text with a different
special effect. The
explicitly italicizes text; use it if all you want is italic.
Alternatively, you can include text display-altering cascading style
definitions in your document. [The <i> Tag, 4.5.4]
Besides for emphasis, also consider using
<em> when presenting new terms or as a
fixed style when referring to a specific type of term or concept. For
instance, one of O’Reilly’s book styles is to specially format file
and device names. You might use the
<em> tag to differentiate those terms
from simple italics used for emphasis.
Speaking of special styles for technical concepts, there is the
<kbd> tag. As you probably
already suspect, it is used to indicate text that is typed on a
keyboard. Its enclosed text typically is rendered by the browser in a
<kbd> tag is most
often used in computer-related documentation and manuals, such as in
Type <kbd>quit</kbd> to exit the utility, or type <kbd>menu</kbd> to return to the main menu.
indicates a sequence of literal characters that should have no other
interpretation by the user. This tag is most often used when a
sequence of characters is taken out of its normal context. For
example, the following source:
The <samp>ae</samp> character sequence may be converted to the æ ligature if desired.
is rendered by Netscape, for instance, as shown in Figure 4-9.
The special HTML reference for the
ae ligature entity is
æ and is converted to its
appropriate æ ligature character by most browsers. For more
information, see Appendix F.
<samp> tag is not
used very often. You should use it in those few cases where special
emphasis needs to be placed on small character sequences taken out of
their normal context.
<strong> tag is for
emphasizing text, except with more gusto. Browsers typically display
<strong> tag differently
<em> tag, usually by
making the text bold (versus italic) so that users can distinguish
between the two. For example, in the following text, the emphasized
“never” appears in italic by Opera, and the
<strong> “forbidden” is rendered in
bold characters (see Figure
One should <em>never</em> make a disparaging remark about the noble fruit. In particular, mentioning kumquats in conjunction with vulgar phrases is expressly <strong>forbidden</strong> by the Association bylaws.
If common sense tells us that the
<em> tag should be used sparingly, the
<strong> tag should appear in
documents even more infrequently.
<em> text is like shouting.
<strong> text is nothing short of a
scream. Like a well-chosen epithet voiced by an otherwise taciturn
person, restraint in the use of
<strong> makes its use that much more
noticeable and effective.
another computer-documentation trick, indicates a variable name or a
user-supplied value. The tag is often used in conjunction with the
<pre> tags for displaying particular
elements of computer-programming code samples and the like. Browsers
text in italics, as shown in Figure
4-11, which displays the following example:
The user should type <pre> cp <var>source-file</var> <var>dest-file</var> </pre> replacing the <var>source-file</var> with the name of the source file, and <var>dest-file</var> with the name of the destination file.
Like the other computer-programming and documentation-related
<var> tag not only
makes it easy for users to understand and browse your documentation,
but automated systems might someday use the appropriately tagged text
to extract information and useful parameters mentioned in your
documents. Once again, the more semantic information you provide to
your browser, the better it can present that information to the
Although each content-based tag has a default display
style, you can override that style by defining a new look for each
tag. You can apply this new look to the content-based tags using either the
style or the
class attribute. [Inline Styles: The style Attribute,
8.1.1] [Style Classes,
You also may assign a unique identifier (
id) to the content-based style tag, as well
as a less rigorous
title, using the
respective attributes and their accompanying quote-enclosed string
values. [The id attribute,
220.127.116.11] [The title
dir attribute advises the
browser in which direction the text within the content-based style tag
should be displayed, and
you specify the language used within the tag. [The dir attribute,
18.104.22.168] [The lang
Things happen in and around a content-based tag’s content, and,
with the respective
and value you may react to that event by displaying a user dialog or
The various graphical browsers render text inside content-based tags in similar fashion; text-only browsers such as Lynx have consistent styles for the tags. Table 4-1 summarizes these browsers’ display styles for the native tags. However, stylesheet definitions may override these native display styles.
Table 4-1. Content-based tags
Any content-based style tag may contain any item allowed in text, including conventional text, anchors, images, and line breaks. In addition, other content-based and physical style tags can be embedded within the content.
Any content-based style tag may be used anywhere an item allowed
in text is used. In practice, this means you can use the
<code>, and other similar tags
anywhere in your document except inside
<xmp> tagged segments. You can use
text style tags in headings, too, but their effects may be overridden
by the effects of the heading tags themselves.
It may have occurred to you to combine two or more of the various content-based styles to create interesting and perhaps even useful hybrids. Thus, an emphatic citation might be achieved with:
In practice, Dr. Frankenstein, the browser usually ignores the monster—as you can test by typing and viewing the example yourself, “Moby Dick” gets the citation without emphasis.
The HTML and XHTML standards do not require the browser to support every possible combination of content-based styles and do not define how the browser should handle such combinations. Someday maybe; for now, it’s best to choose one tag.
[*] None of the popular browsers format
<code> segments as a text
processor might. Rather, use the
<pre> tag in conjunction with
<code> to achieve
programming code-like display effects.
[*] If you need convincing that less is better when applying the content-based and physical style tags, try reading a college textbook in which someone has highlighted what he considered important words and phrases with a yellow marker.