[whatwg] Feeedback on <dfn>, <abbr>, and other elements related to cross-references

Jon Gibbins (dotjay) dotjay at gmail.com
Wed Apr 23 02:11:53 PDT 2008

Ian Hickson wrote:
>> 3) Documents that use the same acronym to mean different things in 
>> different contexts/sections.
>> For example, take that both <abbr title="United States of 
>> America">USA</abbr> and <abbr title="United Space Alliance">USA</abbr> 
>> previously occurred in the document, and you *don't* want, as an author, 
>> for every future use of either term to be expanded by default (so will 
>> not provide titles for all occurrences). I then jump into the middle of 
>> a page from somewhere else and see "The USA's fleet of Space Shuttles 
>> are refurbished by USA, LLC." and wonder what's going on!
>> There's no way to tell which is which without heuristical analysis of 
>> the language, so the UA can't auto-expand based on a single previous 
>> occurrence, which I think is the behaviour you were expecting by 
>> disallowing abbrs without titles and removing the referencing.
> I didn't expect any autoexpading at all. Ever, even with <abbr> present 
> with a title="" attribute. Why would one want that? That would be really 
> annoying. We have acronyms and abbreviations for a reason -- to make 
> things shorter! :-)

People with learning disabilities, the elderly or people unfamiliar with 
certain jargon may prefer to have certain, or even all, abbreviations 
display in their expanded form by default. I know I can never remember 
what all the US state codes are, for example.

>> a) Documents will either mark up every acronym with an <abbr title=…
>>> tag—user agents that expand these by default (primarily aural as I
>> understand it) will appear very verbose—or,
> User agents that expand abbreviations by default are poor, IMHO.

There are certain options to expand abbreviations in place of the 
abbreviated form in both JAWS and Window-Eyes screen readers, but this 
is not default behaviour in either case.

>> b) Documents will only mark up the first occurrence. UAs that do not 
>> process subsequent occurrences of the abbreviation (currently all of 
>> them), will suffer from lack of definitions.
> I don't follow this. Why would documents only mark up the first one?

I think the confusion here is that current best practice is to only mark 
up the first abbreviation in a page with the expansion to avoid verbose 
output to users. To all intents and purposes, such advice should be 
ignored for reasons already identified to the list (i.e. you can't know 
a user's entry point into a document). However, it *could* be a 
preference in software to only expand the first occurence thus putting 
control back into the hands of the user. The problem that remains is how 
to disambiguate abbreviations that have more than one expanded form.

In my opinion, a more useful solution is to offer some form of 
infrastructure for glossaries where abbreviations can be uniquely 
identified to an expanded form. This would aid disambiguation and give 
control of rendering to users via their user agent.


dotjay / Jon Gibbins
w: dotjay.co.uk

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