[whatwg] the cite element

Ian Hickson ian at hixie.ch
Sun Aug 16 04:21:12 PDT 2009

On Wed, 12 Aug 2009, Erik Vorhes wrote:
> On Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 6:21 PM, Ian Hickson<ian at hixie.ch> wrote:
> > On Mon, 3 Aug 2009, Erik Vorhes wrote:
> >> On Mon, Aug 3, 2009 at 6:29 AM, Ian Hickson <ian at hixie.ch> wrote:
> >> > Not all titles are citations, actually. For example, I've heard of 
> >> > the /Pirates of Penzance/, but I'm not citing it, just mentioning 
> >> > it in passing.
> >>
> >> No, that actually is a citation, whether you realize it or not. You 
> >> are making reference to a musical and are therefore citing it, even 
> >> in passing.
> >
> > Your definition of "citation" is far looser than my dictionary's ("a 
> > quotation from or reference to"). In fact your definition seems to be 
> > basically the same as HTML5's -- a title of a work. Unless you think 
> > that this should be valid use of <cite>:
> >
> >   <p>I picked up <cite>my favourite book</cite>, and put it next to
> >   <cite>the painting I got from my aunt</cite>.</p>
> >
> > I don't think that those references to works should use <cite>. Doing 
> > so has zero benefit, as far as I can tell.
> No, No, NO. That is not what I mean at all. You again deliberately 
> misrepresent what I am trying to convey, that <cite> should be for 
> citations, not for a subset of citations.

I'm really not deliberately misrepresenting anything, I'm trying to work 
out what you mean. It appears you are using the word "citation" in a 
different way than I am. I understand it to only mean mentions that make 
some reference to the contents of the source, such that mentioning 
something in passing is not a citation, but quoting from a source, or 
referencing statements made in that source, is a citation.

I agree that if you think that "citation" means any arbitrary reference, 
whether in passing or otherwise, then HTML4's <cite> would be applicable 
in the cases you are suggesting.

However, then the question is whether you think that <cite> should be 
applicable for the entire reference, or just the name of the source. In 
the former case (which appears to be what Wikipedia's templates are 
doing), I don't see why "I picked up <cite>my favourite book</cite>" would 
be non-conforming.

If we define HTML4's <cite> as being any arbitrary reference or mention to 
a source, but limiting it to only the name of the source, then as far as I 
can tell this is equivalent to saying it is for titles of works, which is 
HTML5's definition, except possibly if you argue that sources include 
people, in which case HTML4 is a superset of HTML5's definition.

However, this is not my interpretation of what HTML4 says, and thus I find 
what HTML4 says to be a subset of what HTML5 says.

> I agree (and never suggested otherwise): those are in no way explicit 
> citations, as there is nothing specific about them that would justify 
> calling them citations. <cite>Pirates of Penzance</cite>, however is an 
> explicit reference to that work and therefore a citation, not "just" a 
> title of the work.

With the definition of "citation" that covers any arbitrary reference or 
mention, I don't see what the difference is between "a citation" and "a 
title of a work".

> > Why not? An orchestral arrangement is a work, and has a title -- the 
> > spec explicitly lists "score", "song", and "opera" as possible works, 
> > for instance.
> >
> > I've added "legal case report" to the list, to clarify that you can 
> > use <cite> to name such reports.
> So the definition of <cite> in HTML5 should currently be "title of work 
> or something that could be construed as a title where one doesn't exist 
> in the explicit sense of 'title.'

As far as I can tell, legal case reports do have titles, and those are 
what is being marked up here.

> But not people's names, even if they're the citation, because using 
> <cite> for citations is silly."

That's not the reason, no. The reason to avoid using it for people's names 
is that people's names are not usually typographically offset in the same 
way as titles, and that few people use the element in this way today, 
leading me to conclude that this is not a use case with enough support to 
warrant the element being defined in a way that includes people. We 
already have a number of other ways of marking up people's names, 
including the quite fine-grained vCard microdata vocabulary.

> > For example, the following is valid HTML5 but wouldn't be valid HTML4, 
> > since it's not a citation or reference to another source, but merely 
> > something mentioned in passing:
> >
> >   <p>Today, as I was moving my copy of <cite>Dreamer's Void</cite>, I 
> >   hurt my back.</p>
> That's perfectly fine in HTML4. It's a citation, as I have explained 
> previously, and there's nothing in the HTML4 spec that prohibits that 
> use. Why are you misrepresenting the HTML4 spec?

Your interpretation and mine differ. As far as I can tell, the above isn't 
a citation.

Out of curiosity, would you consider the names in the following text to be 

   <p>Today I went to Mike's apartment and saw Shyam.</p>

Would you say the following is a conforming use of <cite> in HTML4?:

   <p>Today I went to <cite>Mike</cite>'s apartment and saw 

> >> Besides, there's already <tt>, which could be used to identify "title 
> >> text" or something like that.
> >
> > It has the wrong default styles.
> So does <cite>, in many contexts even if we're relying on the definition 
> in HTML5 as it stands.

<cite> is italics by default. Italics is the right format for almost all 
titles of works. So it is significantly closer to the right default styles 
than <tt>.

> >> There's no reason to limit it to a subset of citation (more below).
> >
> > I honestly don't understand how HTML5 is a subset of HTML4 here, 
> > unless you mean people's names, which as far as I can tell aren't 
> > commonly used with <cite>, and for which there is no benefit to using 
> > <cite>.
> I believe they are more commonly used than you are willing to admit.

Taking Philip's data:


...and ignoring sites where the <cite> element is used in clearly 
incorrect ways (e.g. one page uses it for an image caption), and ignoring 
cases where entire citations are marked up, names, titles, and everything 
(as with Wikipedia's citation templates), I actually don't see _any_ pages 
that put people's names in <cite>.

Is there other data that contradicts this?

> > Wikipedia's output is not an argument for consuming <cite>. In fact, 
> > what they're doing is an argument against keeping <cite> for that 
> > purpose: they are explicitly overriding the only behaviour <cite> 
> > gives them (italics) and then going out of their way to reintroduce 
> > that effect on a <span>! If that's not an argument for changing the 
> > meaning of <cite> to something more convenient, I don't know what is.
> Yes, Wikipedia's overall markup is problematic, but you seemed to be 
> needing some actual evidence that <cite> is used for more than simply 
> "title of work" other than blog commenter names (which for some 
> inexplicable reason you have rejected out-of-hand as evidence that 
> <cite> is used for people's names and other non-title citations).

Philip's data (as cited above) shows that <cite> is used for _lots_ of 
purposes other than citations, including things that would be best marked 
up using <em>, <i>, <q>, <small>, and all kinds of other things.

> >> Any reference to a title of a work is by definition a citation. 
> >> Therefore you are limiting <cite> to a subset of citation.
> >
> > I disagree with your definition of "citation".
> I'm sorry the New Oxford American Dictionary isn't good enough for you. I quote:
> - a quotation from or reference to a book, paper, or author, esp. in a
> scholarly work
> - a mention of a praiseworthy act or achievement in an official
> report, esp. that of a member of the armed forces in wartime
> - a note accompanying an award, describing the reasons for it
> - [in Law] a reference to a former tried case, used as guidance in the
> trying of comparable cases or in support of an argument

That's the definition I was using also, but I don't see how you get from 
that to saying that a citation is any mention of another work or person.

> > Unless you can demonstrate that there is a concrete benefit to doing 
> > what you describe, I do not think it is a good idea. There are 
> > concrete benefits to the definition currently in HTML5, namely it 
> > provides a good first approximation of common typographic effects at a 
> > very low cost.
> There is also at least one concrete detriment, in that you are 
> deliberately limiting the "appropriate" use of an element that you 
> readily admit is nothing more than a styling hook.

Why is that a detriment?

Generally speaking, limiting the use of elements to specific purposes is a 
net gain overall, as it allows more fine-grained styling.

> > As noted above, I believe that this is an expansion as well (I don't 
> > think HTML4's use of "source" was meant to include people). But in any 
> > case, what you describe here isn't a problem.
> Clearly, then, the HTML4 authors didn't understand <cite> when they 
> provided an example that explicitly used the element in junction with 
> the citation of a name.

The HTML4 spec is full of contradictions and impossible requirements, so 
this would not be an especially surprising mistake to find. I don't think 
we can draw any conclusions from the non-normative text as to the intent 
of the specification -- we have to only base our readings of HTML4 on the 
normative text, especially when there are contradictions.

> > What is the _problem_ solved by allowing names to be marked up in the 
> > same manner as titles?
> Aside from relying on default styles that many user-agents provide, 
> what's the _problem_ solved by disallowing names from being cited, 
> especially when not all titles are to be italicized in the first place?

You didn't answer my question.

To answer yours: being able to rely on pages being formatted in a 
reasonable way without CSS being used is the primary advantage of limiting 
<cite> to titles of works and not allowing people's names to be so marked.

> >> That's what CSS is for.
> >
> > CSS is optional. We need the media-independent layer to make sure that 
> > we get a reasonable rendering even without CSS.
> Except that there are many instances when the "default" rendering of 
> <cite> is inappropriate (and by extension unreasonable) even for titles 
> of works.

There are some, I don't know about many.

> >> Okay, but it won't make any difference to authors like myself who 
> >> will continue to use <cite> to mark up names.
> >>
> >> We can do this either by applying a Kenobian interpretation of the 
> >> spec (e.g. a person is the work of their parents/peers/society and a 
> >> person's name is therefore a "title of work")
> >
> > The spec explicitly says people's names aren't titles of works.
> Which won't stop me (and I imagine many others) from using <cite> 
> appropriately--and contrary to what the specification currently states.

Well if you're willing to ignore the specification, it doesn't really 
matter what the specification says.

> >> Authors use the <cite> element to mark up names.
> >
> > Only a small minority do. Certainly not enough to make this a language 
> > feature.
> But in HTML4 it *is* an allowable use of <cite>. I don't think you have 
> any reasonable justification as to why it is appropriate for you to take 
> this language feature away.

I do not think it is as clear as you suggest that this feature was ever 
allowed, but even if it was, I think the benefits we gain from making this 
more consistently about titles rather than any mention of a person or work 
or other source outweigh the minor inconvenience of having to use <span> 
instead of <cite> to mark up people's names, especially given that data 
indicates that using <cite> for people's names is rare.

> >> It is often the most semantically appropriate element for marking up 
> >> a name
> >
> > There is no need to mark up a name at all.
> I don't understand.

What is the problem solved by marking up people's names?

Why is this:

   <p>I live with <name>Brett</name> and <name>Damian</name>.</p>

...better than this?:

   <p>I live with Brett and Damian.</p>

> >> I don't think it makes sense to ignore the existing behaviour of 
> >> authors.
> >
> > Existing behaviour of authors is not to mark up names with <cite>.
> Except for the authors that do mark up names with <cite>

There are some, but they are not the majority.

On Thu, 13 Aug 2009, Erik Vorhes wrote:
> On Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 6:21 PM, Ian Hickson<ian at hixie.ch> wrote:
> >
> > Currently, <cite> in HTML5 isn't for collecting anything, it's purely 
> > to provide a hook for styling.
> Please explain how <cite>, if it is only a hook for styling titles of 
> works, is any different from <i> in the HTML5 specification, since an 
> italicized title of a work qualifies as "prose whose typical typographic 
> presentation is italicized."

There is very little difference. The only difference is that using <cite> 
for titles and <i> for mood changes allows the designer to change the 
house style at a later date so as to mark up titles in a different manner 
than mood changes.

Ian Hickson               U+1047E                )\._.,--....,'``.    fL
http://ln.hixie.ch/       U+263A                /,   _.. \   _\  ;`._ ,.
Things that are impossible just take longer.   `._.-(,_..'--(,_..'`-.;.'

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