[whatwg] [br] element should not be a line break

Thomas Koetter thomas.koetter at id-script.de
Wed Aug 4 05:56:23 PDT 2010

Disclaimer: I'm new to this discussion list, so please excuse me if this topic has been discussed before. A quick search didn't turn up anything though.

Currently, I'm writing a book on web programming and I stumbled over the specification of the br element for HTML5.

In the past, there has been a lot discussion about not using br just to insert line breaks everywhere. I'm fully aware that we have lots of elements that are often a better fit and that, of course, line breaks can be achieved by "blocking" inline elements.

What strikes me though is that according to the spec "The br element represents a line break". A *line* break is presentational in nature. The break is structural, but restricting it to a certain presentation of that break lacks the desired separation of structure and presentation.

Wouldn't it make more sense to consider the br element to be just a minor logical break inside a paragraph? Just like hr represents a thematic break on the paragraph-level. How the break would be rendered is a different matter and should be left to the designer.

In addition, the appropriate uses (poems, addresses) and examples currently given are not convincing.

Consider this:
<p>P. Sherman<br>
42 Wallaby Way<br>

There's no reason why line breaks should be part of an address. I've seen many addresses on one line with their parts separated just by dots or pipes. Given the inherent structure of an address, a definition list with name/value pairs would also be more semantically fitting than a paragraph of text with line breaks.

		<dt>Name</dt><dd>P. Sherman</dd>
		<dt>Street</dt><dd>42 Wallaby Way</dd>

Or just:
		<dd>P. Sherman</dd>
		<dd>42 Wallaby Way</dd>

Regarding poems, line breaks have conventionally been used in Western literature to aid in manifesting the rhythm. And there surely are many poems that use formatting for artistic effect. But I think it would be hard to say that *line* breaks are an inherent part of poems per se. I'd say that breaks are important means to determine structure, but line breaks are just one of many possible manifestations of such breaks. Just like in a musical score where the bar is present in sheet music but not in the actual music being played.

Interestingly, the examples given for where not to use br look like great examples to actually use a break element (not necessarily a line break).

First example:
<p><a ...>34 comments.</a><br>
<a ...>Add a comment.</a></p>

There are two separate pieces of text that belong together (they are both related to comments). So using one paragraph to group them is fine. But they can benefit from a separation that is a bit stronger than just punctuation since one of them is purely informational and the other is a call to action. This is where a break element is perfect. One designer might want a line break. So he should be able to set a line break property on that break. Another designer doesn't like line breaks. So let her set the break to be generated as a green, medium-sized dot.

Second example:
<p><label>Name: <input name="name"></label><br>
<label>Address: <input name="address"></label></p>

Although I also prefer the version without the br element, I must say that a form is the one element where presentational markup does make sense. By its very nature a form has an explicit design, otherwise it would be called free-form. Granted, in web design there usually isn't and probably shouldn't be such a strong form character as in paper-based forms.

So, in summary, I suggest changing the br element to just be a logical break element with the default rendition of a line break, but which could be adjusted via a new style property.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thomas Koetter

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