Web Languages

Peter Wood

The World Wide Web

Web Languages

HyperText Markup Language (HTML)

Elements and tags

HTML Document Structure

Some Block-Level HTML Elements

Element name Description
h1...h6 headings
p paragraph
table table
ol ordered list
ul unordered list
li list item
br line break
hr horizontal rule
pre preformatted text
div division (often used for formatting with stylesheets)

Some In-line HTML Elements

Element name Description
code sample code
em emphasis
a anchor (for links)
img inline image
span often used for formatting with stylesheets

Attributes of Elements


Permissive Syntax of HTML

  • HTML4 and HTML5 are both less strict than XHTML
  • not all elements need start tags: e.g. head, body
  • not all elements need end tags: e.g. head, body, p, li
  • some elements (empty elements) must not have end tags: e.g. hr, br, img
  • tag names are case insensitive
  • quotes are not needed around most attribute values:
    e.g.,<table border=1>
  • none of the above is true for XHTML

Limitations of (X)HTML

  • (X)HTML defines a fixed set of elements (XHTML is one XML vocabulary)
  • elements have document structuring semantics
  • for presentation to human readers
  • organisations want to be able to define their own elements
  • applications need to exchange structured data too
  • applications cannot consume (X)HTML easily
  • move to XML (and JSON) for data exchange and (X)HTML for document representation

XML Overview

  • based on Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML)
  • W3C Recommendation (Fifth Edition 2008, originally 1998)
  • design of XML motivated by
    • inflexibility of HTML
    • complexity of SGML
  • XML allows application-specific document types (vocabularies)
  • it has become one of the dominant ways to represent information exchanged among applications on the Internet
  • e.g., the RSS XML vocabulary used for news feeds such as from the BBC

XML Example

Representing information about a collection of classical CDs: cd-collection.xml

    <soloist>Martha Argerich</soloist>
    <orchestra>London Symphony Orchestra</orchestra>
    <conductor>Claudio Abbado</conductor>
      <composer>Frederic Chopin</composer>
      <composition>Piano Concerto No. 1</composition>
      <composer>Franz Liszt</composer>
      <composition>Piano Concerto No. 1</composition>

    <composer>Antonin Dvorak</composer>
      <composition>Symphony No. 9</composition>
      <orchestra>Vienna Philharmonic</orchestra>
      <conductor>Kirill Kondrashin</conductor>
      <composition>American Suite</composition>
      <orchestra>Royal Philharmonic</orchestra>
      <conductor>Antal Dorati</conductor>

Some XML Vocabularies

  • XML is becoming ubiquitous as both
    • a storage format
    • a data interchange format
  • XML vocabularies are used for
    • expressing mathematical formulas (MathML)
    • drawing 2D pictures (SVG)
    • documents: OpenDocument format (ODF) and Microsoft Office Open XML
    • news feeds (Atom and RSS)
    • defining multimedia presentations (SMIL)
    • defining contents of web resources (RDF)
    • modelling chemical structures (CML)
    • electronic commerce (ebXML, cXML, ...)
    • voice-activated services (voiceXML)
    • devices with small screens, e.g., WAP phones (WML)
    • ... (see xml.coverpages.org/xmlApplications.html e.g.)

Meaning of acronyms:

  • SVG: scalable vector graphics
  • SMIL: synchronous multimedia integration language
  • RDF: resource description framework
  • RSS:
    • Really Simple Syndication (RSS 2.0)
    • Rich Site Summary (RSS 0.91, RSS 1.0)
    • RDF Site Summary (RSS 0.9 and 1.0)
  • CML: chemical markup language
  • cXML: commerce XML
  • ebXML: electronic business XML
  • WML: wireless markup language


  • most browsers now have built-in support for some subset of SVG
    • Firefox, Opera, Safari, Chrome, IE9, ...
    • IE8 and earlier versions needed a (free) Adobe plug-in
    • also included in HTML5
  • allows drawing of various 2D shapes (and animation)
  • example of 3 circles: svg-example.xml
     <g style="fill-opacity:0.7; stroke:black; stroke-width:0.1cm;">
      <circle cx="6cm" cy="2cm" r="100" style="fill:red;"
              transform="translate(0,50)" />
      <circle cx="6cm" cy="2cm" r="100" style="fill:blue;"
              transform="translate(70,150)" />
      <circle cx="6cm" cy="2cm" r="100" style="fill:green;"


  • some browsers have built-in support
    • Firefox, Safari
    • supported in Chrome 24 and in IE8 using (commercial) plug-in, but not subsequently
    • also included in HTML5
  • in MathML, the cube root of (1 minus (x over 2)) can be written as
    and looks like this when viewed with a MathML-capable browser


  • RSS is a simple XML vocabulary for use in news feeds
  • RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, among other things
  • an example is BBC News (view the source to see the XML, since a stylesheet has been applied)
  • you can subscribe to news feeds using a news reader
  • or they can be used by developers to create other pages, such as news plotted on a map of the world: http://www.maplandia.com/news/

RSS Example

  • a fragment of old news has been stored in rss-fragment.xml
  • the basic structure is given below
    <title> ... </title>
      <title> ... </title>
      <description> ... </description>
      <link> ... </link>
      <pubDate> ... </pubDate>
      <title> ... </title>
      <description> ... </description>
      <link> ... </link>
      <pubDate> ... </pubDate>

XML Syntax Rules

  • a root element is required
    • e.g., html
  • end tags are required
  • elements must be properly nested
    • if start tag of A precedes start tag of B, end tag of B must precede end tag of A
  • case is significant:
    • e.g. <A> is different to <a>
  • attribute values must be enclosed in quotes
  • entity references, other than those to built-in entities, must be declared (see later)

Attribute values can be enclosed in either single quotes or double quotes. This allows one to use quotes inside attribute values, such as height='72"'.

Well-Formed XML

  • a well-formed document observes the syntax rules of XML
  • which means the document can be correctly parsed
    XML parser checking that a document is well-formed
  • parsing transforms a stream of characters into a logical structure
  • the logical structure represents a collection (or hierarchy) of conceptual objects, e.g., elements

More XML syntax

  • document should start with the XML declaration which gives, e.g., XML version being used
    • e.g., <?xml version="1.0"?>
  • other tags which begin with <? and end with ?> are called processing instructions, e.g. to specify a stylesheet
  • special shorthand allowed for empty elements
    • e.g., <hr/> for <hr></hr>
  • note that whitespace characters (space, tab, carriage return and line feed) do not constitute empty content
  • comments are enclosed between <!-- and -->
    • e.g., <!--changed 10/1/01-->
  • characters to be interpreted as themselves rather than XML can be placed in a CDATA section which starts with <![CDATA[ and ends with ]]>
    • e.g., comment above produced using <![CDATA[<!--changed 10/1/01-->]]>

The XML declaration can also specify the character encoding used, using the encoding attribute, and whether or not the document is dependent on others, using the standalone attribute. Putting this information inside the document makes it self-identifying, which is preferable to using file extensions, for example.

Processing instructions contain instructions which are supposed to be passed on to applications processing the document.

Character Encodings

  • less than 40% of web users speak English
  • W3C Internationalization (I18n) Activity tries to ensure that formats and protocols are usable worldwide in all languages and in all writing systems
  • original ASCII character encoding allows only 128 characters
    • letters of the English alphabet
    • numbers
    • some common symbols and special characters (e.g. line feed)
  • Unicode is designed to be a universal system for encoding all the characters in all the world's languages
  • the form of Unicode used in XML is called UTF-8
    • uses 1 to 4 bytes to represent each character
    • example

Character and built-in entities

  • character entity references can be used represent characters not otherwise accessible
    • start with & and # characters; end with ; character
    • refer to character's encoding either in decimal: e.g. &#8804; for ≤ (less than or equal to)
    • or in hexadecimal: e.g. &#x05D0; for א (Hebrew aleph character)
  • entities also used to "escape" the meaning of XML special (markup) symbols
  • only 5 entities are built-in
    • &amp; (&), &lt; (<), &gt; (>), &quot; ("), &apos; (')
  • so <, e.g., can be obtained using &lt;, &#60; or &#x3C;
  • see DTDs for more general uses of entities

Single quotes and double quotes have special meaning in XML in that they are used to delimit attribute values. If, for example, we want to use a double quote to represent inches inside an attribute value delimited using double quotes, we can use the quot entity to do so as follows: height="72&quot;". Now the value of the height attribute returned by an XML parser will be 72".


  • say we want to use XHTML, MathML and SVG in a single XML document
  • how does a browser know which element is from which vocabulary?
  • e.g., both SVG and MathML define a set element
  • we shouldn't have to worry about potential name clashes
  • should be able to switch between different namespaces, one for each of XHTML, MathML and SVG
    <html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" ... >
      <svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" ... >
      <math xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1998/Math/MathML">
  • in fact, HTML5 allows MathML and SVG to be used without namespaces, as in this example

The namespaces solution

  • solution is to qualify element names with URIs
  • since URI is a unique identifier
  • qualified name then consists of two parts
  • e.g.
    <http://www.w3.org/2000/svg:circle ... />
  • where http://www.w3.org/2000/svg is a URI and namespace
  • URI doesn't have to reference real Web resource
  • URIs only disambiguate names, don't have to define them
  • in this case, the browser knows the SVG namespace and behaves accordingly

Namespace declarations

  • using URIs everywhere is very cumbersome
  • so namespaces are used indirectly using
    • namespace declarations and
    • associated prefixes (user-specified)
    <... xmlns:svg="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg">
       <p>A circle looks like this
          <svg:circle ... />
  • xmlns:svg attribute
    • declares the namespace http://www.w3.org/2000/svg
    • associates it with prefix svg

Scope of namespace declarations

  • the scope of a namespace declaration is
    • the element containing the declaration
    • and all its descendants (those elements nested inside the element)
    • can be overridden by nested declarations
  • both elements and attributes can be qualified with namespaces
  • unprefixed element names are assigned a default namespace
  • default namespace declaration: xmlns="URI"

Namespaces example

<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml"
   <p>A circle looks like this
      <svg:svg ... >
         <svg:circle ... />
      and has
  • html and p are in the default namespace (http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml)
  • svg and circle are in the http://www.w3.org/2000/svg namespace
  • note that svg is used both as a prefix and as an element name
  • what if we left out the prefix svg in front of the element name svg?

Overriding namespaces

  • consider again the example where the default namespace is overridden
    <html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" ... >
      <svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" ... >
      <math xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1998/Math/MathML">
  • namespace for
    • html element and its descendants is http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml
    • svg element and its descendants is http://www.w3.org/2000/svg
    • math element and its descendants is http://www.w3.org/1998/Math/MathML
  • note the entity reference to pi built in to MathML


  • JSON stands for JavaScript Object Notation
  • no longer actually tied to any particular programming language
  • now widely used for data interchange
  • more concise than XML

JSON Data Types

  • number: e.g. 23.45
  • string: e.g. "abc"
  • Boolean: e.g. true
  • null
  • array
    • an ordered list of zero or more values, each of which may be of any type
    • uses square bracket notation, with elements being comma-separated
  • object
    • an unordered associative array (key/value pairs)
    • objects are delimited with curly brackets and use commas to separate each pair
    • within each pair, the colon ':' character separates the key from its value
    • keys must be strings and should be distinct within the object

JSON example

XML CDCollection example from earlier, represented in JSON

  "CDs": [
      "soloist": "Martha Argerich",
      "orchestra": "London Symphony Orchestra",
      "conductor": "Claudio Abbado",
      "date": 1968,
      "performances": [
        "composer": "Frederic Chopin",
        "composition": "Piano Concerto No. 1"
        "composer": "Franz Liszt",
        "composition": "Piano Concerto No. 1"
      "composer": "Antonin Dvorak",
      "performances": [
        "composition": "Symphony No. 9",
        "orchestra": "Vienna Philharmonic",
        "conductor": "Kirill Kondrashin",
        "date": 1980
        "composition": "American Suite",
        "orchestra": "Royal Philharmonic",
        "conductor": "Antal Dorati",
        "date": 1984


  1. Consider using an XML document to represent information about students on an MSc programme. All information should be represented using elements rather than attributes. The root element of the document is programme. A programme has a degree, whose value in this case is "MSc", and a year, whose value in this case is "2015/16". These elements are followed by the results for the programme. The results are partitioned into distinction, merit, pass and fail. Within each is a sequence of name elements, each containing the name of a person having achieved the corresponding result for the programme. The actual results are as follows: Jemima Puddle-Duck and Peter Rabbit obtained distinctions, Tom Kitten obtained a merit, and Samuel Whiskers failed (nobody obtained only a pass).

  2. Consider a relational database containing a relation teaches with attributes course and lecturer, representing the relationship between courses taught on an MSc programme and the lecturers who teach them. Give an XML document which represents a relation instance containing two tuples. (You are free to make up your own course and lecturer names.)

Links to more information

HTML is covered in Chapter 1 and XML in Chapter 2 of [Moller and Schwartzbach]. XML is covered in Chapter 1 of [Jacobs]. HTML and XML are mentioned in passing in Chapter 4 of [Comer].