3.2 Elements

3.2.1 Semantics

Elements, attributes, and attribute values in HTML are defined (by this specification) to have certain meanings (semantics). For example, the ol element represents an ordered list, and the lang attribute represents the language of the content.

These definitions allow HTML processors, such as Web browsers or search engines, to present and use documents and applications in a wide variety of contexts that the author might not have considered.

As a simple example, consider a Web page written by an author who only considered desktop computer Web browsers:

  <title>My Page</title>
  <h1>Welcome to my page</h1>
  <p>I like cars and lorries and have a big Jeep!</p>
  <h2>Where I live</h2>
  <p>I live in a small hut on a mountain!</p>

Because HTML conveys meaning, rather than presentation, the same page can also be used by a small browser on a mobile phone, without any change to the page. Instead of headings being in large letters as on the desktop, for example, the browser on the mobile phone might use the same size text for the whole the page, but with the headings in bold.

But it goes further than just differences in screen size: the same page could equally be used by a blind user using a browser based around speech synthesis, which instead of displaying the page on a screen, reads the page to the user, e.g. using headphones. Instead of large text for the headings, the speech browser might use a different volume or a slower voice.

That's not all, either. Since the browsers know which parts of the page are the headings, they can create a document outline that the user can use to quickly navigate around the document, using keys for "jump to next heading" or "jump to previous heading". Such features are especially common with speech browsers, where users would otherwise find quickly navigating a page quite difficult.

Even beyond browsers, software can make use of this information. Search engines can use the headings to more effectively index a page, or to provide quick links to subsections of the page from their results. Tools can use the headings to create a table of contents (that is in fact how this very specification's table of contents is generated).

This example has focused on headings, but the same principle applies to all of the semantics in HTML.

Authors must not use elements, attributes, or attribute values for purposes other than their appropriate intended semantic purpose, as doing so prevents software from correctly processing the page.

For example, the following snippet, intended to represent the heading of a corporate site, is non-conforming because the second line is not intended to be a heading of a subsection, but merely a subheading or subtitle (a subordinate heading for the same section).

 <h1>ACME Corporation</h1>
 <h2>The leaders in arbitrary fast delivery since 1920</h2>

The hgroup element is intended for these kinds of situations:

  <h1>ACME Corporation</h1>
  <h2>The leaders in arbitrary fast delivery since 1920</h2>

The document in this next example is similarly non-conforming, despite being syntactically correct, because the data placed in the cells is clearly not tabular data, and the cite element mis-used:

<html lang="en-GB">
 <head> <title> Demonstration </title> </head>
   <tr> <td> My favourite animal is the cat. </td> </tr>
     —<a href="http://example.org/~ernest/"><cite>Ernest</cite></a>,
     in an essay from 1992

This would make software that relies on these semantics fail: for example, a speech browser that allowed a blind user to navigate tables in the document would report the quote above as a table, confusing the user; similarly, a tool that extracted titles of works from pages would extract "Ernest" as the title of a work, even though it's actually a person's name, not a title.

A corrected version of this document might be:

<html lang="en-GB">
 <head> <title> Demonstration </title> </head>
   <p> My favourite animal is the cat. </p>
   —<a href="http://example.org/~ernest/">Ernest</a>,
   in an essay from 1992

Authors must not use elements, attributes, or attribute values that are not permitted by this specification or other applicable specifications, as doing so makes it significantly harder for the language to be extended in the future.

In the next example, there is a non-conforming attribute value ("carpet") and a non-conforming attribute ("texture"), which is not permitted by this specification:

<label>Carpet: <input type="carpet" name="c" texture="deep pile"></label>

Here would be an alternative and correct way to mark this up:

<label>Carpet: <input type="text" class="carpet" name="c" data-texture="deep pile"></label>

Through scripting and using other mechanisms, the values of attributes, text, and indeed the entire structure of the document may change dynamically while a user agent is processing it. The semantics of a document at an instant in time are those represented by the state of the document at that instant in time, and the semantics of a document can therefore change over time. User agents update their presentation of the document as this occurs.

HTML has a progress element that describes a progress bar. If its "value" attribute is dynamically updated by a script, the UA would update the rendering to show the progress changing.

3.2.2 Elements in the DOM

The nodes representing HTML elements in the DOM implement, and expose to scripts, the interfaces listed for them in the relevant sections of this specification. This includes HTML elements in XML documents, even when those documents are in another context (e.g. inside an XSLT transform).

Elements in the DOM represent things; that is, they have intrinsic meaning, also known as semantics.

For example, an ol element represents an ordered list.

The basic interface, from which all the HTML elements' interfaces inherit, is the HTMLElement interface.

interface HTMLElement : Element {
  // metadata attributes
           attribute DOMString title;
           attribute DOMString lang;
           attribute boolean translate;
           attribute DOMString dir;
  readonly attribute DOMStringMap dataset;

  // microdata
           attribute boolean itemScope;
  [PutForwards=value] readonly attribute DOMSettableTokenList itemType;
           attribute DOMString itemId;
  [PutForwards=value] readonly attribute DOMSettableTokenList itemRef;
  [PutForwards=value] readonly attribute DOMSettableTokenList itemProp;
  readonly attribute HTMLPropertiesCollection properties;
           attribute any itemValue; // acts as DOMString on setting

  // user interaction
           attribute boolean hidden;
  void click();
           attribute long tabIndex;
  void focus();
  void blur();
           attribute DOMString accessKey;
  readonly attribute DOMString accessKeyLabel;
           attribute boolean draggable;
  [PutForwards=value] readonly attribute DOMSettableTokenList dropzone;
           attribute DOMString contentEditable;
  readonly attribute boolean isContentEditable;
           attribute HTMLMenuElement? contextMenu;
           attribute boolean spellcheck;
  void forceSpellCheck();

  // command API
  readonly attribute DOMString? commandType;
  readonly attribute DOMString? commandLabel;
  readonly attribute DOMString? commandIcon;
  readonly attribute boolean? commandHidden;
  readonly attribute boolean? commandDisabled;
  readonly attribute boolean? commandChecked;
HTMLElement implements GlobalEventHandlers;

interface HTMLUnknownElement : HTMLElement { };

The HTMLElement interface holds methods and attributes related to a number of disparate features, and the members of this interface are therefore described in various different sections of this specification.

3.2.3 Element definitions

Each element in this specification has a definition that includes the following information:


A list of categories to which the element belongs. These are used when defining the content models for each element.

Contexts in which this element can be used

A non-normative description of where the element can be used. This information is redundant with the content models of elements that allow this one as a child, and is provided only as a convenience.

For simplicity, only the most specific expectations are listed. For example, an element that is both flow content and phrasing content can be used anywhere that either flow content or phrasing content is expected, but since anywhere that flow content is expected, phrasing content is also expected (since all phrasing content is flow content), only "where phrasing content is expected" will be listed.

Content model

A normative description of what content must be included as children and descendants of the element.

Tag omission in text/html

A non-normative description of whether, in the text/html syntax, the start and end tags can be omitted. This information is redundant with the normative requirements given in the optional tags section, and is provided in the element definitions only as a convenience.

Content attributes

A normative list of attributes that may be specified on the element (except where otherwise disallowed), along with non-normative descriptions of those attributes. (The content to the left of the dash is normative, the content to the right of the dash is not.)

DOM interface

A normative definition of a DOM interface that such elements must implement.

This is then followed by a description of what the element represents, along with any additional normative conformance criteria that may apply to authors. Examples are sometimes also included. Attributes

Except where otherwise specified, attributes on HTML elements may have any string value, including the empty string. Except where explicitly stated, there is no restriction on what text can be specified in such attributes.