[whatwg] Subject: Re: many messages regarding image captions

David Walbert dwalbert at learnnc.org
Tue Nov 28 17:52:35 PST 2006

On Nov 28, 2006, at 2:41 PM, Michel Fortin wrote:

>> The example from mozilla.org doesn't require any special container  
>> element, because it needs no caption. The set-aside text is an  
>> example of what's being discussed in the surrounding text, and the  
>> heading "example" serves perfectly well to explain that.
> But remove the stylesheet and you can see the CSS-generated  
> "Example" "heading" disappear. Now, how do you distinguish what is  
> the main text and what is not?

Why is "Example" generated by the stylesheet in the first place? It's  
a contextual heading, not something merely presentational. Why not  
simply type <h4>Example</h4> into the document, save the trouble of  
generating headers, and then no one will have any trouble  
distinguishing that it's an example?

> I believe that <figure class="example"> would be a better choice  
> than <div class="example"> as it show that the content of the  
> example is not to be taken as part of the main text, but serves as  
> an illustration of what the main text is talking about.

Only for machine-readability. Would that knowledge be of practical  
value in indexing? I suppose it might, in theory, if it were used  
widely enough and consistently enough to make that practical. (If  
not, there's also <section class="example">.) It's the consistency  
that concerns me, as I tried to explain here:

>> Once we say that plain text can be a "figure," I'm not sure what  
>> meaning "figure" really has any longer; it could be almost  
>> anything. And if it could be almost any piece of text that the  
>> author feels is an aside, it will have no semantic consistency,  
>> and will then be functionally no different from <div>.
> <figure>
>     illustrative or supporting content for the main content.
> <aside>
>     tangential content which can be considered separate from
>     the main content.

My use of the word "aside" didn't refer to the defined element. Bad  
choice of words. Substitute "illustrative" for "an aside." My point  
is that what's considered illustrative could vary wildly. The brief  
example in the Mozilla document can be considered illustrative,  
certainly. But in some articles, half the text might be considered  
illustrative of a main point that is explained briefly in the  
introduction. It's a matter of perspective.

"Aside," on the other hand, along with the word "tangential," implies  
something that is completely outside the flow of the document and  
which, if removed, would not reduce the value of the remaining  
content. That's fairly clear and straightforward for an author.

> Quoted from Wikipedia:
>> A figure in writing and publishing is any graphic, text, table or  
>> other representation that is unaligned from the main flow of text.  
>> Figures are commonly found in scientific and non-scientific  
>> articles, but also in books. Some books will have a table of  
>> figures--in addition to the table of contents--that lists  
>> centrally all the figures appearing in the work.
> <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figure_%28publishing%29>

Quoted from the Chicago Manual of Style, which as a publishing  
reference may be more appropriate to this discussion:

"An illustration printed with the text, as distinguished from a  
plate, which is printed separately." (15th ed. p. 829)

Another dictionary definition I found defines it even more narrowly,  
as a "diagram or illustrative drawing."

Echoing James Graham, when you say "figure" most people will think of  
something labeled "Figure 1" in a book, and I cannot recall having  
ever seen that usage refer to plain text. Wikipedia entries tend to  
include every conceivable meaning and usage for a term, which is  
what's great about them, but they tend to be poor at helping one  
pinpoint the most important information or most common usage. (I'd  
also point out that "unaligned from the main flow of text" is a  
visual definition, and inaccurate for our purposes: a sidebar is  
unaligned from the main flow of text yet is clearly an <aside> rather  
than a <figure>.) "Figure" refers most commonly and primarily to some  
kind of non-textual element, and I think it's the most common meaning  
we need to be concerned with.

Michel, please understand: I am not arguing that your proposal is  
illogical or internally inconsistent or in some way objectively  
invalid. I simply think that it is highly unlikely to be implemented  
by authors in a consistent manner, because it leaves too much room  
for interpretation. Here's where I am coming from: I manage several  
people who do various sorts of markup on a single, moderately large  
website. These people are not computer scientists; they are editors,  
librarians, and graduate students in social sciences. Our content  
management system is designed to automate as much markup as possible:  
for example, image + caption + credit is a combination that can be  
automated (and is, in our case), and that is easily definable as a  
<figure>. There is no editorial judgement. It's simple. But if a  
figure is any illustrative content, then it becomes much more  
difficult to explain, and the <figure> element is going to have to be  
marked up by hand (or via WYSIWYG editor) in the text of documents by  
various people who will inevitably understand and interpret it  
differently. I would have a terribly difficult time defining for them  
when to use it and when not, and in all likelihood I'd tell them not  
to use it at all, because the usage would be too inconsistent. (It is  
hard enough just getting them to use elements like <abbr> and <dfn>  
consistently; there is more room for interpretation there than I ever  
thought.) And that's just one medium-sized website with consistent  

When I see a proposal like yours, I ask myself two things: 1, how  
might I use it, personally? and 2, how would I explain this to the  
people who work with me? If I can think of answers to #1 but not to  
#2, I am inclined not to support it, because I'm not the typical web  
author (and, quite clearly, neither are you). I certainly don't want  
to imply that we should "dumb down" HTML, but few people who use it  
will have expert knowledge of it, or for that matter even read the  
specs. The closer HTML standards and terminology adhere to existing  
usage and conventions, the more widely and consistently we can expect  
them to be implemented on the web.

All that said: I could be wrong, and I don't see that a broad  
definition of <figure> would interfere with uses permitted in the  
current draft. So I'm done arguing now. :-)

David Walbert
LEARN NC, UNC-Chapel Hill
dwalbert at learnnc.org
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