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Meaning? Structure? Content?

Wednesday 14 January, 2004 (12:57PM GMT)

There are three similar terms that are used to describe the philosophy of HTML and CSS web standards: 'The separation of meaning and presentation', 'The separation of structure and presentation' and 'The separation of content and presentation'. They all seem to be used pretty much interchangeably, but do they really mean the same thing? Obviously, 'meaning', 'structure' and 'content' do mean completely different things, but in this context, suggesting that HTML should be used for these things and these things only (while CSS does all the presentation), are they interchangeable?

I'm not going to provide an answer. I am one of the guilty ones who have used the terms interchangeably without much thought. A more precise phrase might be 'The separation of structured, meaningful content and presentation' or maybe even 'The separation of everything from presentation' (?!).

I'm confusing myself as I think about it...


Comment 1

As I see it, HTML applies meaning. 'Something something' just on its own is just words but '<p>Something something<p>' adds meaning to those word, making it a paragraph.

So said Chris on Wednesday 14 January, 2004 at 3:51PM GMT.

Comment 2

I'd say HTML/XML applies structure to content which has a meaning. CSS applies the presentation to the content which can add emphasis to it or hide parts of it, thus possibly altering the meaning in the process.
In Software we talk about separating presentation logic/layer from the business logic/layer.

So said Will on Wednesday 14 January, 2004 at 8:56PM GMT.

Comment 3

I suppose in a way the structure of content provides meaning.

But then, so does presentation. How something appears makes a difference in how we interpret it, so presentation carries meaning as well (among others, Douglas Norman thinks about that at ).

Further, content can be inserted (PHP, scripts of various kinds--see into a structure (HTML/XHTML), which has multiple modes of presentation (CSS)., those are not interchangeable phrases. Further, I suppose I would now use the phrase "separate structure and presentation". Depending on the application at hand, content might be integrated with structure or not....

In the end, there's just this one purpose: delivering meaningful information quickly and accessibly. Separations are just one of our tools to make it so.

So said metasilk on Thursday 15 January, 2004 at 3:12PM GMT.

Comment 4

more for the discussion...
from :

"XML was designed to describe data and HTML was designed to display data. "

So said metasilk on Thursday 15 January, 2004 at 9:17PM GMT.

Comment 5

Well, on that point W3Schools is completely wrong.

As a matter of fact, HTML was designed to be specifically independent of display.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML, he never intended it to be presentational. His idea was great, but for a long time there was no adequate way of controlling detailed presentation, so daft tags like <font> were added by browser manufacturers and hacks were used such as using tables for layouts, completely going against the intended data-centric nature of HTML. But now we have CSS and we can finally use HTML as it was intended - not to display data, but to describe it.

HTML in its most modern form (XHMTL) *is* XML - and all it is is a commonly understood type of XML that browsers can take and understand how to interpret straight away.

See for a bit more information about the history of HTML.

So said Patrick on Friday 16 January, 2004 at 12:59PM GMT.

Comment 6

XHTML is an implmentation of XML that is a way of describing hyperlinked documents. HTML is an implmentation of SGML for describing hyperlinked documents. XML data can be tranformed into HTML for parsing as a hyperlinked document just as XML can be tranformed to SVG to parse it as a Vector graphic or to XSL-FO to parse it as a paged document. CSS can (in theory) apply presentation to both XML, XHTML (as a subset of XML) and HTML.

That's the way I see the relationships between the technologies. What do you reckon?

So said Dan Webb on Tuesday 20 January, 2004 at 2:47PM GMT.

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