[whatwg] The utility function for semantics in HTML

Matthew Paul Thomas mpt at myrealbox.com
Sat Nov 4 08:00:09 PST 2006

On Nov 1, 2006, at 11:55 AM, James Graham wrote:
> ...
> To take a slight detour into the (hopefully not too) abstract, what do 
> people think the fundamental point of semantics in HTML is?

To maximize the utility (usefulness) of documents using it. But this is 
a complicated function.

*   Less presentational -> more medium-independent -> accessible to more
     people -> greater utility. (Examples: people using screenreaders or
     search engines.)

*   More semantic -> harder to learn and understand -> fewer documents
     using it -> less utility. (Example: DocBook.)

*   More semantic -> harder to learn -> simpler alternatives invented
     -> learning and/or transcoding-to-HTML effort required -> less
     utility. (Examples: Markdown, BBCode, the various
     partly-incompatible wiki syntaxes, and any Web comment form that
     allows -- or doesn't convey whether it allows -- a subset of HTML.)

*   More semantic -> more machine-analyzable -> greater utility.
     (Examples: Google's PageRank with <a>, Google Sets with <ul>.)

*   Less presentational -> more semantically-misused -> less
     machine-analyzable -> less utility. (Example: XHTML2's attempt to
     kill <b> and <i>, resulting in more misuse of <strong> and <em>.)

Many people concentrate on one or two of these effects and gloss over 
the others, so their idea of the overall utility function is warped.

Matthew Paul Thomas

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