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HTML, XHTML, CSS and More

Which documentation standards do we decide what to teach students, and does it matter? In this post, I'm going to explain why I teach students in my technical writing courses XHTML for Web design instead of HTML5.

My suggestion is to teach what works most consistently across computing platforms, knowing that the standards of today will be replaced. Documentation file formats and coding habits should adhere to standards because one of the goals of technical documentation is that it be easy to update and revise at a later date.

Teaching documentation, therefore, should include teaching the ideal habits for technical writers and documentation designers.

Consider HTML and XHTML. Long before standards bodies, such as the W3C, approve and finalize any standard, experience teaches us that the browser developers will have already implemented a mix of whatever is coming — and each browser will be an incomplete and incompatible mess. I still remember trying to get basic features to work in Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer.

If you teach about ePub formats, I would teach ePub 2.x and not the unsettled ePub 3.x standard. If you teach HTML, I'd stick to HTML 4.01 Strict, and I'd introduce students to XHTML 1.0. These standards date to 1999 and 2000; as a result they are stable and somewhat predictable. No, it isn't the cutting edge of HTML5 goodness — but moving from HTML 4.01 or XHTML 1.0 isn't going to be a problem for students.

I am currently revising some Web pages to meet the "XHTML 1.0 Strict/CSS3" standards. The choice to use XHTML 1.0 instead of HTML5 was not simple, especially since HTML5 is the shiny new trendy standard. The problem with shiny new standards is that they don't work well with older browsers — and plenty of people are still using older versions of Internet Explorer. Plus, HTML5 seems to be something of a moving target because no browser offers full compliance. More annoying than HTML5 is the need to use various CSS tricks to make a page look good on a variety of browsers.

One reason I lean towards XHTML is that the habits you develop while coding XHTML are "better" than what most HTML4/5 developers seem to practice. I believe it is important to teach students good organizational, design, and implementation practices. HTML is, bluntly, far too tolerant of bad coding. XHTML 1.0 Strict requires consistency, because it is an XML implementation.

HTML is based on SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), but only loosely so. Most browsers don't actually use the SGML Document Type Definition (DTD) for HTML — they parse the page based on whatever HTML is hard-coded within the browser. Badly formed HTML code, with missing closing tags and deprecated tags won't break most browsers. It's not a bad thing that browsers are forgiving — much of the Web would cease to work if browsers halted when parsing bad code. Still, it is annoying to know that your "DOCTYPE" declaration is generally meaningless.

XHTML is XML-based. Yes, XML is based on SGML, but unlike the forgiving HTML parsers that tolerate errors, XML editors and validators often demand that the developer fix errors. (You can "validate" HTML or XHTML, but I've found HTML5 "validation" is something of a joke. Because almost any code is okay, the validators find few errors.)

There is talk of XHTML5, which is something I would appreciate — as long as it doesn't allow the bad habits tolerated by HTML. The debates about calling the standard XHTML 1.5 or XHTML 2.0 seem to have been resolved, with standards bodies such as W3C and WHATWG agreeing that it would be logical to align HTML5 and XHTML5. It seems to have confused people that XHTML 1.0 was, approximately, an XML implementation of the HTML 4.01 standard. (XHTML 1.1 was beyond confusing, for reasons that I won't discuss here.)

Some students will wonder why they should learn XHTML 1.0 instead of HTML5. You should explain that the consistency of XML coding will help them in a number of ways that HTML5 coding does not. For a summary, I suggest this article:

http://www.webstandards.org/learn/articles/askw3c/oct2003/

I consider the following points the most important:

XHTML, being XML-based, gives students a foundation for other XML-based document formats. Everything from Apple's system preferences to Microsoft Office documents are now stored in XML formats. Learning XHTML is a good, clear way to learn about XML coding.

XHTML, XSL, XSLT, XPath, and XQuery work together to enable flexible output formatting. If you want to be a documentation expert, you need to understand databases and structured output.

While my technical writing students might not appreciate why I'm using XHTML, even after I explain what XHTML is, they will be learning better habits and a skill that is essential in the data-centric world of technical documentation.

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