[Standards-JIG] Re: JEP-0071 XHTML-IM lack of scope

Rachel Blackman rcb at ceruleanstudios.com
Wed Sep 1 23:53:50 UTC 2004

> I don't think the point of <strong/>, <em/> (or <dfn/> <code/> <samp/> 
> <kbd/> <var/> <cite/> for that matter) is mark-up at all. CSS anyone? 
> These elements are meant to structure your text. Therefore, it is 
> wrong to tell someone they SHOULD use <strong/> and <em/> when to want 
> to format something.
> Perhaps the issue isn't that important anymore since, taking the JEP 
> itself as an example, misusage of <strong/> and <em/> is already so 
> widespread (perhaps from riding the "don't use <i/> and <b/>" 
> momentum). But it still looks weird to recommend bad practise in a 
> JEP.

I think the problem is, there's no 'good practice' on actual 
/formatting/ as opposed to document /data/ anymore.  The concepts of 
'bold' and 'italics' are not supposed to be part of the document under 
proper CSS.  Sure, you can use <span style/>, but that's discouraged.  
The document shouldn't contain the markup, right?  The style definition 
should, and you should be able to swap one style definition in for 
another if you want!

But therein lies the problem.  If, say, I want to put the name of a 
book in italics, I can't do, say:

<i>Lord of Snow and Shadows</i> by Sarah Ash

...because 'i' is discouraged.  Similarly with underline, if I wanted 
to underline the name of a work.  Probably the /proper/ way to do it 
would be:

<span class='booktitle'>Lord of Snow and Shadows</span> by Sarah Ash

...and then define the 'booktitle' class in my stylesheet to be 
italics, but then this relies on any stylesheet I might want to replace 
it with on the client side, like 'user defined stylesheet', to have a 
'booktitle' class.  I could do <span style='font-style: italics'/> but 
then that can't be overridden by a user stylesheet.

As a result, at some point, <strong/> and <em/> got co-opted as the new 
<b/> and <i/>, because they're standard elements.  Generally, even if 
you say 'ignore remote stylesheet' in your browser, <strong/> and <em/> 
come out as bold and italic in the default stylesheet of a given 
browser.  Yes, they don't mean 'bold' or 'italics,' and as you point 
out they have connotations in, for instance, text-to-speech browsers 
for the blind.  But the rush to avoid specifying physical markup either 
as <b/> or by specifying styles in the document itself has pushed 
people towards <strong/> and <em/> for bold and italics, because of the 
considerations above.  As you say, the usage is already pretty 

I guess if you want to get into this the question is whether XHTML-IM 
is intended to convey document /rendering/ markup (i.e., bold, italic, 
underline, font size and color) or whether it's intended to convey 
document /structure/ markup (i.e. 'strong emphasis,' 'emphasis,' and so 
on).  I've been going into this with the assumption that XHTML-IM is 
intended to convey the former, and uses <strong/> and <em/> only as a 
convenience for those who are embedding existing HTML formatting 
controls for displaying messages, since those pretty much always turn 
out as bold and italic under most HTML renderers.

Rachel 'Sparks' Blackman -- sysadmin, developer, mad scientist
"If it is not broken, give me five minutes to redesign it!"
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