[whatwg] small tag (was De-emphasis)

David Walbert dwalbert at learnnc.org
Fri Feb 9 06:21:22 PST 2007

On Feb 9, 2007, at 8:52 AM, Mikko Rantalainen wrote:

> David Latapie wrote:
>> On Fri, 09 Feb 2007 12:58:35 +0200, Mikko Rantalainen wrote:
>>> ignore and is usually orthogonal to the rest of the content.  
>>> <small> is something you usually skip but you must be aware of  
>>> the content (e.g. a copyright or license boilerplate) - the key  
>>> here is that the content is often repeated but if you have read  
>>> it *once*, then you may skip it later.
>> So, if I understanf you correctly, <small> is short for "important  
>> legalse-like SMALL-print" and not just "SMALL-text">, right?
> That's pretty much what the current WHATWG spec says:
> http://www.whatwg.org/specs/web-apps/current-work/#the-small
> The latest HTML specification of small element (http://www.w3.org/ 
> TR/html4/present/graphics.html#h-15.2.1) only says
> "15.2.1 Font style elements: the TT, I, B, BIG, SMALL, STRIKE, S,  
> and U elements" and "SMALL: Renders text in a 'small' font". So  
> either <small> has no semantics at all (and should be dropped) or  
> it has semantics defined by WHATWG (which seems to describe the  
> current usage in the wild).

Logically, if <small> represents "small print" legalese, I agree that  
it is not de-emphasized. (That kind of small print is often small  
precisely because it IS important, and the authors would probably  
rather you not read it!)

However, looking at the three examples in the spec, I would question  
the value of the <small> element.


First example: the footer contains contact information and a copyright.

   For more details, contact
   <a href="mailto:js at example.com">John Smith</a>.
  <p><small>© copyright 2038 Example Corp.</small></p>

Here, <small> is a copyright notice. In HTML 5 I'd use <p  
class="license"> and style it appropriately, since "license" is now a  
restricted semantic class.

In this second example, the small element is used for a side comment.

<p>Example Corp today announced record profits for the
second quarter <small>(Full Disclosure: Foo News is a subsidiary of
Example Corp)</small>, leading to speculation about a third quarter
merger with Demo Group.</p>

This side comment is already de-emphasized, because it is in  
parentheses -- the standard print convention (in English, at least)  
for de-emphasizing text within the flow of other text. Since there is  
already a typographical marker of de-emphasis, the <small> tag would  
have added value only to a machine (if it would even then), and if I  
wanted text to appear in parentheses I wouldn't also wrap it in a tag  
-- just as I'd use either quotation marks or the <q> tag, but not  
both. In this case the parentheses and <small> tag are not  
technically redundant, but they're awfully close.

In this last example, the small element is marked as being important  
small print.

<p><strong><small>Continued use of this service will result in a  

Since there's no context given, I can't comment. But if it's  
emphasized I'm not sure why anyone would want it to appear as "small  
print." That would, visually, de-emphasize it.


I would also ask whether a semantic element for "small print" legal  
text has real practical value. In each of these examples, it is  
obvious from the text or context that what's enclosed in the <small>  
tag is legal text or some kind of disclaimer. Would there ever be a  
need for legal text to be findable by machine? If so, wouldn't the  
text of a license agreement have to be all in <small> text, and would  
anyone ever actually do that? Does the "Full discloser" count as  
legal text for a machine's purposes?

And finally, I haven't used <small> since maybe 1998 -- in part  
because once I started learning about web standards I quit using  
anything that sounded purely presentational. Even if <small> has  
semantics, it sounds from the name like it is purely presentational.  
I expect I'm not alone in making that (incorrect) assumption. (Most  
people don't actually read the entire specification.)

I admit I don't know how <small> is used in the wild -- can anyone  
enlighten me? If the examples in the spec are typical, I'd suggest  
that some kind of microformat for legal text might be more  
appropriate than a "small print" element.

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

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