[html5] Updating WHATWG coverage of the <cite> element, which has changed back to a broad model (not limited to titles)

Stanton McCandlish smccandlish at gmail.com
Sat Aug 22 20:49:45 PDT 2015

As many but not necessarily all of you may be
<https://wiki.whatwg.org/wiki/Cite_element> aware, HTML5
 (like HTML 4.01 <http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/struct/text.html#h-9.2.1> before
it) now again permits use of the <cite> element to mark up *any* citation
information. An attempt in the early days of HTML5 to limit this element
specifically to the title of the work being cited ("cite – cited title of a
work CHANGED <http://www.w3.org/TR/html-markup/cite.html>", 28 May 2013)
was met with something of an HTML community revolt, and the element was
been returned to its broader usage almost immediately (I'm not certain of
the exact date, but by later the same year it was widely reported to have
been reverted to the broad usage; see, e.g., S. Faulkner, "cite and
blockquote - reloaded <http://html5doctor.com/cite-and-blockquote-reloaded/>",
4 November 2013).  The current, non-draft version of HTML5 (28 October
2014) is quite clear that the element may include any citation data (see in
particular "4.5.6 The cite element
and "4.4.4 The blockquote element
note also that it is now permissible to use <cite> inside or outside
<blockquote>. All the usual suspects, like HTML5Doctor, agree on how to
interpret it; only WHATWG seems to be getting it wrong.  HTML5.1 nightly
continues with the broad interpretation of the element, as of this writing,
and has been this way consistently since I started tracking this.

WHATWG's own "Living Standard", at 4.5.6 The cite element
<https://html.spec.whatwg.org/multipage/semantics.html#the-cite-element>, has
not caught up to this change (or "un-change", really), and still defines
<cite> thusly: "The cite element represents the title of a work ... A
person's name is not the title of a work ... and the element must therefore
not be used to mark up people's names." Meanwhile, the actual Web has gone
right on using it in the broader sense. For example, the element is
frequently used in blogging and webboard platforms around the poster's
(even a quoted poster's) identification.

The element is not to be confused with the  cite= attribute, a link
attribute for URLs only.

So my questions/suggestions/requests are:

*1.  Will WHATWG please update its material on this element, as to the
breadth of what citation content it may contain*, to stop conflicting with
the W3C specs and with actual real-world use?

*2.  Will WHATWG also please update its material so as to no longer
recommend any particular default styling?* Right now, you are advocating
that it be italicized by default (at 14.3.4 Phrasing content
which is only appropriate for the titles of major works - books, journals,
films, albums, TV shows, plays, operas, comic book series, etc. - not for
titles of minor works (chapters, articles, short films, short stories,
poems, songs, TV episodes, operettas, skits, comic book issues, etc.), and
not for other citation data (authors, publishers, dates, locations, page
numbers, volume/issue, URLs, e-mail addresses, etc.). Your own example, My
favorite track is <cite>Jive Samba</cite> by the Cannonball Adderley Sextet,
illustrates the problem: If your italics were used, this would
force-italicize a song title, but all major style guides say to put titles
of songs and other minor works in quotation marks, unitalicized. *This
present recommendation by WHATWG makes it impossible to follow normal
citation styles while also following WHATWG's advice. *I've searched
WHATWG's entire mailing list archives, and there's no discussion of a
rationale for italicizing <cite> by default. It seems to be recommended
"just to do something", and it appears to be a holdover from days when CSS
was not widely used; there's no specific justification for it anywhere.

*3.  Will WHATWG also please include examples that show varied usage of the
element*, as W3C and other sources do? Please include examples of mark up
of at least the following: a title (only) of a work being cited; the
username of a poster of a blog article; the username of a poster being
quoted on a forum (with the <blockquote cite="..."> also giving the URL to
the original post as well, so people understand the difference between
these two cites); and an entire reference citation (as might be used in a
journal article) including authors, title, publisher, publisher location,
volume/number, pages, date, visually-displayed URL, and access date all
within the element. It's important that people understand that the usage of
the element is quite broad (and always has been, except for a brief period
in HTML5's early history), and that particular implementations and needs
may vary widely.

The problem from my perspective is that some people pay more attention to
WHATWG's statements than those of the W3C on such matters, and this
conflict between the two organizations' views on this element are leading
to actual implementation conflict.  For example (and what brought me here),
there's been confusion at Wikipedia, and resistance to do much of anything
with this element at all, specifically because of WHATWG's attempts to
limit the element to titles only, and to italicize the element no matter

If WHATWG still believes that the element should not be used for entire
citations, but only titles, what is the basis of this belief?

Stanton McCandlish
McCandlish Consulting
4001 San Leandro St
Suite 28
Oakland  CA 94601-4055

+1 415 234 3992

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