[whatwg] the cite element

Jim Jewett jimjjewett at gmail.com
Wed Sep 16 10:45:41 PDT 2009

In http://lists.whatwg.org/pipermail/whatwg-whatwg.org/2009-September/023005.html,
Ian quoted Erik Vorhes as writing:

>> Put another way, if you had no prior knowledge of the current HTML5
>> definition of <cite> (and perhaps any other specification's definition
>> of the element), what would seem to be logical and appropriate uses of
>> the element?

> You mean based on just the element name? I wouldn't use it without reading
> the spec first. Most people seem to think it means "italics", though, for
> what that's worth.

I think that gets at the root of the problem with cite.  Most people
don't read the spec, or even know where to find it.  cite isn't common
enough to just copy by example, and it turns out to be ambiguous as
the name of an element or attribute.

Do you wrap the actual excerpt (the precise thing you're citing), or
the name of the source?  If you wrap the name/title of the source, is
there a way to show the scope of what you're attributing?

The HTML 4 definition ("CITE: Contains a citation or a reference to
other sources.") didn't help much, but I'm not sure it can be fixed by
a spec change.  If you have to look it up, then only careful people
will use it properly.  (On the other hand, if there is any HTML
element whose users are likely to be extra careful, cite is a strong

My own interpretation of (a fraction of)
http://philip.html5.org/data/cite.txt did not support narrowing the
definition only to titles.  For example

(1)  Examples of citing a person, arguably the creator.

(1a)  http://www.hiddenmickeys.org/Movies/MaryPoppins.html

The cite element is used to give credit to the person who
found/verified each "Hidden Mickey":
    <CITE>REPORTED: <A HREF="mailto:...">Beverly O'Dell</A> 12 MAR 98</CITE>
    <CITE>UPDATE: Greg Bevier 29 JUL 98</CITE>

(1b)  http://www.webporter.com -- they give the author of the article.
 But it looks like they (at least sometimes) include the title as
well, which fits under full citation.

(1c)  http://www.thesentencegame.com/ -- a link to the snipped author.

(1d)  http://drotner.com/squirtboating/  -- the phototographer and subject
    <cite class="subject">Paddler: Kelly McCauley</cite>
    <cite class="attribution">Photo: April McCauley, 2001</cite>

These do seem useful; if you wanted more information, it might well be
"How do I contact this photographer or that model to get something

(2)  Several uses -- and several *non-uses* for titles from

The page begins with carefully attributed blockquotes.  These are
*not* done with cite, presumably because it didn't seem flexible
enough.  Instead, it was marked up as

    <p class="quote">...
    <p class="citation">
      <span class="citationauthor">François Le Lionnais</span>,
      <span class="citationsource">Lipo: First Manifesto</span></p>

Within the text, <cite> was used to point to source materials, but
there didn't seem to be anything qouted; in most cases the texts were
used as example objects of study; if they actually need a title
markup, then so does the specific Viking ship in Leif's example.
Sample usage:   <cite>S + 7</cite> (substrata ("novelette" +
7) does appear to be a title.

At the end of the page, there is a further readings section.
    <dt>author<cite>title</cite>publisher</dt> is used for printed
reference books
    <p class="linklist"><a href ...> is used for equivalent references
on the web,
and cite is also used to name the professor of a course
    <cite>4-5 units, <a

(3)  Example of usage as per HTML5

(4)  Example of italics -- though they may be going for the
"commendation" meaning of cite:

(5)  Clearly just for italics -- http://www.truck-town.com/

(6)  http://www.winthrop.dk/hender.html -- Using it to wrap the
portion of your own text that was "cited" as opposed to original.

That said, I can't rule out that it was just a way to get italics;
later on the page, there was cites for "shot heard round
world" (title of event?) and "revolutionaries" (describing the
original settlers).


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