Chapter 3: Well-formedness

Monday, July 14th, 2008

Here’s part 15 of the ongoing serialization of Refactoring HTML, also available from Amazon and Safari.

The very first step in moving markup into modern form is to make it well-formed. Well-formedness is the basis of the huge and incredibly powerful XML tool chain. Well-formedness guarantees a single unique tree structure for the document that can be operated on by the DOM, thus making it the basis of reliable, cross-browser JavaScript. The very first thing you need to do is make your pages well-formed.

Validity, although important, is not nearly as crucial as well-formedness. There are often good reasons to compromise on validity. In fact, I often deliberately publish invalid pages. If I need an element the DTD doesn’t allow, I put it in. It won’t hurt anything because browsers ignore elements they don’t understand. If I have a blockquote that contains raw text but no elements, no great harm is done. If I use an HTML 5 element such as m that Opera recognizes and other browsers don’t, those other browsers will just ignore it. However, if the page is malformed, the consequences are much more severe.

First, I won’t be able to use any XML tools, such as XSLT or SAX, to process the page. Indeed, almost the only thing I can do with it is view it in a browser. It is very hard to do any reliable automated processing or testing with a malformed page.

Second, browser display becomes much more unpredictable. Different browsers fill in the missing pieces and correct the mistakes of malformed pages in different ways. Writing cross-platform JavaScript or CSS is hard enough without worrying about what tree each browser will construct from ambiguous HTML. Making the page well-formed makes it a lot more likely that I can make it behave as I like across a wide range of browsers.


Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Here’s part 14 of the ongoing serialization of Refactoring HTML, also available from Amazon and Safari.

XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations) is one of many XML tools that work well on HTML documents once they have first been converted into well-formed XHTML. In fact, it is one of my favorite such tools, and the first thing I turn to for many tasks. For instance, I use it to automatically generate a lot of content, such as RSS and Atom feeds, by screen-scraping my HTML pages. Indeed, the possibility of using XSLT on my documents is one of my main reasons for refactoring documents into well-formed XHTML. XSLT can query documents for things you need to fix and automate some of the fixes.