At last count, I believe the HTML5 specification is adding 35 new elements, give or take a couple. That’s a lot of new elements. So what, we say. After all, it’s just a bit of text in a specification.

Unfortunately, new elements are more than just a bit of text. They have to be supported in all of the user agents, and they also have to be supported in any number of other applications, including HTML editors, Content Management Systems, validators, debuggers, and so on. A new element is a costly thing, so it needs to be a needed thing. The question is: do we need all of these new elements, and attributes?

It’s an odd thing, but people seem to have developed a disdain for the lowly div element. It’s not a meaningful element, we hear. We use terms such as divitus or some variation. Poor little play dough element.

Yet the div element was never intended to be anything more than a structural construct. It’s purpose was to be attached using the class attribute, styled using CSS, controlled with JavaScript, and given meaning with WAI-ARIA, RDFa, Microformats, and Microdata. Now, however, div is out, and article/section/footer/nav…are in.

Are we taking the right path with HTML5? It’s true that we can built expectation based on an element labeled nav or article that we can’t build on div elements with class names of “nav” or “article”. At the same time, though, adding new div elements with class names doesn’t require creating a new version of HTML, or require changes to browsers and other tools.

What kind of expectation can we build on these new elements? One expectation relates to the contents and structure. According to a blog entry written by James Graham, on the WhatWG weblog[1]:

HTML 5 introduces new elements like <section>, <article> and <footer> for structuring the content in your webpages. They can be employed in many situations where <div> is used today and should help you make more readable, maintainable, HTML source. But if you just go through your document and blindly replace all the <div>s with <section>s you are doing it wrong.

This is not just semantic nit-picking, there is a practical reason to use these elements correctly.

In HTML 5, there is an algorithm for constructing an outline view of documents. This can be used, for example by AT, to help a user navigate through a document. And <section> and friends are an important part of this algorithm. Each time you nest a <section>, you increase the outline depth by 1 (in case you are wondering what the advantages of this model are compared to the traditional <h1>-<h6> model, consider a web based feedreader that wants to integrate the document structure of the syndicated content with that of the surrounding site. In HTML 4 this means parsing all the content and renumbering all the headings. In HTML5 the headings end up at the right depth for free).

James even provides an example:

  <h1>This is the main header</h1>
    <h1>This is a subheader</h1>
      <h1>This is a subsubheader</h1>
    <h1>This is a second subheader</h1>

Which supposedly translates to the following navigational outline:

This is the main header
+--This is a subheader
    +--This is a subsubheader
+--This is a second subheader

Shiny newness…except…what about previous guidelines? As one person brought up in comments, what about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines [2], which state to use H1-H6 to define the structure of the document?

Well, that’s old stuff. This is new stuff.

OK, it’s new, but is it better?

I look at the outline for one of my sites, which is based on the “old” XHTML+RDFa[3], and compare it with the outline for the HTML5 Doctor web site, which is based on the “new” HTML5 markup[4], using an HTML5 Outliner tool. Disregarding the different article counts, there is little different between the two. The behavior is exactly the same.

Now, it’s true, we could ask for a generic header element (<H>) and use it with section/article to create a web page with an outline five, ten, fifteen levels deep, but seriously, how useful is this? When I work on my books, we have several headers we can use to signify the depth of the section, but we’re discouraged from going beyond a depth of three levels. You can only break up your outline so much, before you make things worse.

I don’t want to just pick on section and article, or even pick on these elements. The point I’m making is that sometimes we can get so caught up in the shiny new that we don’t take time to think about what’s being offered, and to challenge it if all it does provide is new without also providing purpose.








Issue 90


Summary: Remove the figure element.


The following is the text for the initial bug[1] associated with this Issue:

Currently the HTML5 specification has an overly broad definition about what can be allowed in a figure element:

“The element can thus be used to annotate illustrations, diagrams, photos, code listings, etc, that are referred to from the main content of the document, but that could, without affecting the flow of the document, be moved away from that primary content, e.g. to the side of the page, to dedicated pages, or to an appendix.”

This is counter to understandings about figure in other businesses and environments, where figures are illustrative graphics of some form. In addition, this provides a confusing parallel in functionality between figure and aside, enough so that people are going to have a difficult time knowing which is which, and when to use one over the other. In fact, with this parallelism, we don’t need both.

All assumptions I have read on figure is people assume the element will contain a reference to an image of some form and a caption. Yet caption is optional, and it sounds like anything can be included in figure. The specification examples show a poem and a code block, in addition to an image.

The figure element either should be pulled completely, in favor of the aside element, or it needs to have a tighter focus in its definition. It should consist of a graphic element, which could be an svg element, a mathml element, an img, an object, or, possibly, a video. It should then have one other element, which will be the caption. Since this element won’t be a svg, mathml, img, object, or video element, it could be anything, including just a regular paragraph. In fact, a regular element styled using CSS would be the best option.

This change would remove any confusion about this element, and there will be confusion. It would also eliminate the problem with having to create a special caption element, just for figure, as discussed in Issue 83.

In a second comment to the bug, I also added the canvas element to the list of allowable elements. The Editor’s rationale for marking the original bug WONTFIX

Rationale: I actually agree with Shelley on this, and that’s what HTML5 used to say. However, it is one of the very few topics which got a _huge_ outcry from Web authors around the Web, demanding that <figure> be allowed to contain basically any flow content (including sections, headings, paragraphs, lists, etc). That’s why the spec says what it does now.

Originally, my interest was only in cleaning up the figure element; to make it more consistent with standard practice in the print world. The more closely I examined the element and the discussions about it, though, the more I felt that we would be better off eliminating the figure element altogether.

The reason for specialized figure handling in the print world is because of typographic convention. This doesn’t really apply in the web world, because we have elements that can group, CSS that can style, WAI-ARIA for accessibility and semantics, as well as other semantic options. If we want to move the figure away from the text, but still have the two associated, we can just by linking the two. In fact, we would have to anyway, because there is no way to associate a figure element with its text if the two are in separate contexts, unless they are linked in some way.

There’s a good reason for specialized figure handling in the print world, but not for web pages. Because we don’t have a good understanding of why we have figure, we can’t determine what it should contain. We only have to look at the discussions about what should be allowed within the figure element to discover that no one really has a clear idea of what this element is for, or how it will be used. Well, other than something with an optional caption, that is tangentially related to the content of the page (as if “tangentially” has a great deal of meaning in a web context, considering that anything can be tangentially related to anything else with the simple addition of a link).

The figure element, as defined in the HTML5 spec, is also a far different construct than what was originally intended. The figure element originated from discussions related to finding a way to attach a caption to an img element[2], somewhat like the caption we attach to tables, but allowing markup rather than just text like the table’s caption attribute. I’m not sure at which step in the evolutionary path it went from a caption to an img, to this all encompassing something with an optional caption we have today.

I did find emails from Michael Fortin[3][4] and Simon Peters[5][6], providing use cases for the figure element. Several of the use cases that Michael pointed out were to Apple online manual web pages. He classifies the code samples that Apple labels as listings, as figures. However, the Apple company itself, restricted the use of figure for illustrative images, only. For tables it used the moniker Table, for listings, Listing. As such, Apple’s own terminology undermines the credibility of these pages as use cases for allowing actual code samples as figures. More specific to the point of this change proposal, if we add a new element for figure, why not for listings, too? That’s also a separate typographical entity in the print world.

Other use cases provided ran the gamut from the pre element for ASCII art, to actual tables, though we already have a table construct in HTML. And when we try to limit what’s allowed, someone somewhere will dig up some actual use case online, somewhere, defending the particular use.

As can be seen, either we allow everything in the figure element in order to meet all possible sets of existing use cases online, in which case figure is really nothing more than a variation on the div element; or we restrict the element to a small subset of allowable elements, and continually fight the battle of, “Well, what about this? What about that?” All for an element that, in actuality, doesn’t provide much in the way of semantics or usefulness.

The figure element is really is nothing more than a grouping mechanism, as was noted back in the beginning of the discussion about the element[7]. So why don’t we use what exists now, rather than create something new?

I was reminded recently that the WAI-ARIA states and roles are useful beyond their primary task, which is provide information for screen readers such as JAWS and NVDA. Other “screen readers”, such as search web bots, like Google’s, can also make use of the semantic information they provide. Among the semantics we can define with ARIA is being able to assign an image role to a div element, and link the image’s caption to another HTML element.

As an example, in the WAI-ARIA 1.0 specification, there is an image listing that I modified, below:

<div role="img" aria-labelledby="caption">
  <img src="example.png" alt="Some descriptive text">
  <p id="caption">A visible text caption labeling the image.</p>

Compare with the figure element:

<img src="example.png" alt="Some descriptive text">
<figcaption>A visible text caption labeling the image.</p>

There is little different between the two, and the ARIA example has the added benefit in that it is implemented in many screen readers today. Best of all, there’s nothing about this example that disallows its use by search bots or other tools and applications, who can then attach the right caption for the element rather than have to scan the surrounding text to derive a caption, or using the alt text.

If the figure is located apart from the text that references it, giving the outer div element an id attribute allows us to link the figure in the text. If we don’t need a physical link, we can use terminology, such as Figure 1, Figure 2, and relate the text and the illustration using this approach. There is nothing about the figure element that changes how the text/illustration are connected—you still need to link the two, or use the caption, itself, to connect the two.

You don’t have to use an img element within the div element. You don’t have to use a div, either. For the pre/ASCII art use case, attach the role and aria-labelledby attributes to the pre element:

<pre role="img" aria-labelledby="caption">

It’s also a simple matter to style whatever we use, too. For instance, a CSS setting for the img example could be the following:

  margin: 10px;
  border: 1px solid #ccc;

[role="img"] p
  margin-left: 20px;
  font-style: italic;
  font-size: .8em;
  line-height: 1em;

We could also further annotate the element using one of the three available semantic annotation technologies available to us: RDFa, Microdata, and Microformats. In fact, we’re overrun with an abundance of semantic annotation capability—too much so to worry about creating single purposed elements supposedly for semantic reasons.


Based on the March 4th HTML5 specification, remove Section 4.5.12, on the figure element. Also remove any additional references to the figure element. In addition, remove Section 4.5.13, on the figcaption element, and any reference to it, too.



This alternative to figure I’ve provided in this change proposal is a frugal one that serves the same purpose for multiple user agents, multiple audiences, and uses available technology and specifications. It allows people to create any form of illustration, and ensures they’re accessible.

Removing the figure element and associated figcaption element, helps trim down the overlarge number of elements that have been added with HTML5. Each new element we add to the specification has a related cost when it comes to implementation—not only across browsers, but also other tools, such as HTML editors, and HTML generation tools.

In addition, encouraging the use of existing HTML, CSS, and ARIA properties and attributes also encourages reuse over creating new, which should be a fundamental goal of this group. If there is a strong rationale for creating something new, and there really isn’t a good alternative, then we can feel justified in creating new elements. However, in the case of figure, as both Michael and Simon have pointed out, we’ve made do with what we have today. We can improve what we have with the addition of the ARIA states and roles, and ensure both a semantic and an accessible solution.


Change will require HTML5 editor time. As far as I know, there is no implementation of figure in browsers or other tools, and there is no dependence on it that I can see in web pages. There might have been some modification to validation tools to support the figure element.




Issue 91


Summary: Remove the aside element.


Originally, my request for the aside element was to tighten its focus, and clean up the allowable content and usage. As I discovered with the figure element, though, covered in the Issue 90 change proposal, the more I looked at the element the harder time I had finding a good, solid reason for it to exist. Evidently, neither can the HTML5 editor, if one goes by the rationale he provided for rejecting my request to clarify the semantics, and structure, of the element:

Rationale: Concurred without counter-arguments above. As Shelley says, the draft was updated based on feedback from Web developers. Given that Web developers are the people who will be using this technology, that seems wise, and not at all something to be ashamed of.

If the element is so unimportant that the editor can’t provide a rationale other than a vague “web developers” want it, in the bug associated with it, then it is too unimportant to keep in the specification. However, the editor’s hubris aside, there is nothing “semantic” about the aside element, nor is there anything really useful about having the element. Consider its definition:

The aside element represents a section of a page that consists of content that is tangentially related to the content around the aside element, and which could be considered separate from that content. Such sections are often represented as sidebars in printed typography.

There’s a reason in the print world why sidebars are separate elements: they trigger different typesetting. There’s also a reason why sidebars are many times published slightly out of context of their use: they are large, and typographically, not always easy to fit into the text where they would be most appropriately placed. Tangential placement has meaning in the print world, but less so on the web, where everything can be tangentially related to everything else via a link or happenstance physical proximity because of web page design.

It’s a confusing element, too. Because of the use of “sidebar” in the definition, people are assuming that the aside element is really a sidebar element, as sidebar is known in the web context. They’re two separate things, though, regardless of name used. A sidebar in the web world should more properly be another section element, as the main column is a section, or perhaps a div element. Frankly, I’m not sold on the usefulness of section, either, but that’s outside of the scope of this change proposal.

The HTML5 editor did not intend aside to be a sidebar element[2], as sidebar is known on the web. What was the original intent, though, is lost in the confusion surrounding the element[3]. For instance, folks have had a hard time differentiating it from figure[4], because both sound almost identical, except that figure had a caption. Semantic markup should not be causing such confusion. That it does implies that people don’t understand the purpose for this element.

The key to understanding whether aside is useful or not is to ask ourselves what it provides from a web perspective that can’t be met by other elements (in combination with semantic markup, such as RDFa, Microformats, or Microdata, ARIA, or CSS). If the material in the aside is supposedly material that can be removed from the document, document in this case being some form of article, from a web perspective, this is material that is not contained as a child of the article element. If it is to be tangentially related, the article and the sidebar could share a parent element, or be tangentially related via a link.

Again, repeating what I stated earlier, we’re not faced with the same restrictions as the print world, where even tangentially related material has to be included within the actual document, itself. We can put material anywhere on the web, and tangentially relate it to the article with a link. If the aside is equivalent to a print world sidebar, then it could be just as easily moved to another section in the same web page, or even another web page and linked. We don’t need a special purpose element in the web world, because we’re not facing the same constraints as the print world.

Now, evidently the aside element can now be used as a sidebar, which further weakens its usefulness. How is the typical sidebar content we see on the web even tangentially related to the existing document? Other than a link to the document may or may not exist in the sidebar? Or do we even know what “document” is, in this case? Is the web page the document? Or only a specific article within a section within the web page? Again, what has meaning in the print world does not necessarily carry over easily into the web.

A semantically meaningful element should be one that, when a person first sees its description, he or she goes, “I can use this. I have needed this.” I’ve not seen this in response to the aside element, except when people are defending it’s existence in the HTML5 specification. The statements such as “I need this, I can use this”, should come first, before the element is defined, not after.

I’m not sure who first asked for the element, I haven’t been able to trace its roots. Regardless, I’ve not seen many in the web design and development world jump up and down with joy for its existence, primarily because most people are still scratching their head over it, wondering what it is, and why they should use it. The aside element has been a point of confusion in the past, and is still a point of confusion now, and will not somehow become magically less confusing in the future[5][6][7][8].

The HTML5 so-called Superfriends wrote a manifesto of support for HTML5, which also included the following[7]:

We are excited about the the ability in HTML5 to scope headings via the section element. This proposes a significant improvement in fluidity of content reuse and eases the burden of creating mashups….We would like to encourage spec authors to be conservative in including new tags, and only do so when they[sic] addition of the tag allows for significant gains in functionality. (emphasis mine)

There is a cost associated with every new element, attribute, and specification change. The cost is to browser developers, but in the case of an element like aside, more so to HTML editors, Content Management Systems, and other tools that now have to incorporate support for yet another new element. The cost is also to web designers and developers, trying to figure out what to use, and when.

If we’re truly concerned about helping web developers, we’re not doing so by introducing confusing elements. If it’s not semantically meaningful, or structurally useful, it should be removed.


Based on the March 4th publication of the HTML5 specification, remove Section 4.4.5, on the aside element, and any other reference in the specification to the aside element.

A better approach would be to use existing elements, such as a div element, style it with CSS, and attach semantics using ARIA, RDFa, Microformats, or Microdata. After all, we now have four different ways we can apply semantics to a web page—we don’t need to create single purposed elements, too.



Removing the aside element removes a element that has generated confusion since its first release—a confusion that doesn’t seem to lessen over time. The element provides little in the way of semantics, because it’s more or less based on a construct from the print world, and doesn’t really have much application in a web environment. Structurally, it provides nothing useful.

Removing the element reduces the confusion, but is also a cost saver in the future for HTML tool builders. Though browsers can more or less treat aside like a div element, HTML editors and other tools cannot. If there was a genuine purpose for the existence of the element, the cost would be justified. But the element’s definition is now so general that we might as well consider it a synonym for the div element.


Removing the element will require Editor time.