Pursuing Semantic Value

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Jeremy Keith is a web developer and author living and working in Brighton, England. More about Jeremy ↬

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Quick summary ↬ Divya Manian, one of the super-smart web warriors behind HTML5 Boilerplate, has published an article called Our Pointless Pursuit Of Semantic Value.

Disclaimer: This post by Jeremy Keith is one of the many reactions to our recent article on the pursuit of semantic value by Divya Manian. Both articles are published in the Opinion column section in which we provide active members of the community with the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas publicly.

I’m afraid I have to agree with Patrick’s comment when he says that the abrasive title, the confrontational tone and strawman arguments at the start of the article make it hard to get to the real message.

But if you can get past the blustery tone and get to the kernel of the article, it’s a fairly straightforward message: don’t get too hung up on semantics to the detriment of other important facets of web development. Divya clarifies this in a comment:

Amen, this is the message the article gets to. Not semantics are useless but its not worth worrying over minute detail on.

More after jump! Continue reading below ↓

The specific example of divs and sectioning content is troublesome though. There is a difference between a div and a section or article (or aside or nav). I don’t just mean the semantic difference (a div conveys no meaning about the contained content whereas a section element is specifically for enclosing thematically-related content). There are also practical differences.

A section element will have an effect on the generated outline for a document (a div will not). The new outline algorithm in HTML5 will make life a lot easier for future assistive technology and searchbots (as other people mentioned in the comments) but it already has practical effects today in some browsers in their default styling.

Download the HTML document I’ve thrown up at https://gist.github.com/1360458 and open it in the latest version of Safari, Chrome or Firefox. You’ll notice that the same element (h1) will have different styling depending on whether it is within a div or within a section element (thanks to -moz-any and -webkit-any CSS declarations in the browser’s default stylesheets).

So that’s one illustration of the practical difference between div and section.

Now with that said, I somewhat concur with the conclusion of “when in doubt, just use a div”. I see far too many documents where every div has been swapped out for a section or an article or a nav or an aside. But my reason for coming to that conclusion is the polar opposite of Divya’s reasoning. Whereas Divya is saying there is effectively no difference between using a div and using sectioning content, the opposite is the case: it makes a big difference to the document’s outline. So if you use a section or article or aside or nav without realising the consequences, the results could be much worse than if you had simply used a div.

I also agree that there’s a balance to be struck in the native semantics of HTML. In many ways its power comes from the fact that it is a limited—but universally understood by browsers—set of semantics. If we had an element for every possible type of content, the language would be useless. Personally, I’m not convinced that we need a section element and an article element: the semantics of those two elements are so close as to be practically identical.

And that’s the reason why right now is exactly the time for web developers to be thinking about semantics. The specification is still being put together and our collective voice matters. If we want to have well-considered semantic elements in the language, we need to take the time to consider the effects of every new element that could potentially be used to structure our content.

So I will continue to stop and think when it comes to choosing elements and class names just as much as I would sweat the details of visual design or the punctation in my copy or the coding style of my JavaScript.

Smashing Editorial (vf)