Are the semantic inline elements really useful? (Re: [whatwg] What exactly is contentEditable for?)

Henri Sivonen hsivonen at
Tue Aug 30 12:16:43 PDT 2005

On Aug 28, 2005, at 11:02, Lachlan Hunt wrote:

> Although some editors do also provide some semantic options, they're 
> usually limited in their abilities.  Some have some semantic block 
> level elements like headings, paragraphs, lists and maybe blockquote. 
> However, few have semantic elements like abbr, cite, code, dfn, kbd, 
> samp, var, q and strong/em (some, like contentEditable, mistakenly use 
> bold and italic options for those).  I often have to jump through 
> hoops just to get <code> in my markup while using dreamweaver, by 
> using the buttons for <b> and/or <i> and then running search and 
> replace to fix up the markup.

Could the user interface difficulties with this semantic inline 
elements stem at least partly from problems with the semantic inline 
elements themselves?

Consider <cite> for example. What's it really good for? Why should an 
author bother to use <cite> instead of <i>? Once you have learned to 
press command-i (or ctrl-i), why should you have to learn to do 
something else when all you really want to get done is to italicize 
titles of works?

I think making the case for <cite> fails the explaining to mother test. 
Chances are that  there is something wrong with <cite> if I don't know 
how to explain to my mother why she should use it instead of the 
semantically empty italics. I cannot come up with any tangible 
advantages. And I have been able to make the case for paragraphs and 

When mother was putting literature lists (eg. ) on the 
Web, she asked something about the technicalities so I to look. My 
immediate thought was that there are titles of works and they should be 
marked up using <cite>. However, when I thought how I should make the 
point, I couldn't come up with any good explanation why the effort 
should be expanded. The scenario that perhaps in the future there will 
be a need to style the titles of works in a different way (for example 
bold strike-through fuchsia) seemed ludicrous. Also, the point about 
pieces of software doing something cool with the data did not seem like 
a truthful explanation, because <cite> has been around for a long time 
and still there are no reports of a killer app emerging around it. So I 
did not recommend <cite>.

Aside: Now that I looked at the source of the literature list, I 
noticed that some titles of works were marked up as <em>. my hypothesis 
is that after an upgrade Dreamweaver has started using <em> when 
pressing command-i. Sigh. See

Having been involved in two ambitious government-funded metadata 
projects, I have observed that people who get drawn into the metadata 
mindset tend to get carried away thinking what they can express in a 
supposedly machine-readable way and forget if anyone is really 
interested in processing what they think they can express and if such 
processing requires an AI-complete system (or whether real users want 
to be bothered with all the data entry) and they happily forget 
focusing on full text search in the process.

Semantic markup is metadata of sorts, and it seems to me that 
proponents of semantic markup often forget practical motivations of 
semantic markup and go into the astronaut mode trying to come up with 
things they can express forgetting to think whether there is demand for 
what they plan on expressing in the receiving end and whether the 
granularity of their expression serves a useful purpose. I thought was a 
joke but the followups seem to go on seriously!

See also

P.S. Using <cite> and <code> is relatively easy with OOo Writer/Web but 
not as easy as pressing command-i. I have used <cite> myself when 
writing using OOo Writer/Web, but I admit I should consider the 
motivation rather cargo cultish.

Henri Sivonen
hsivonen at

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