A View of HTML

Rather than being a chapter that will teach you the HTML language this will be a chapter about the language, how it works, why it has the structures it does and what you should and shouldn't do with it.

Most people will know some HTML by now (assuming you've been studying computing for a while or have a general interest in the web). My task here is not to teach you HTML or act as a reference for the language, there are plenty of resources around that will do this. Some examples are:

  • w3schools HTML tutorial w3schools is one of the most widely used tutorial and reference sites on the web for HTML and other web technologies.
  • Learn HTML from the Mozilla Developer Network, the organisation that produces the Firefox browser. This page has pointers to a number of HTML tutorials and resources.
  • Learn HTML a similar resource from the Chrome development team within Google.

About HTML

HTML is a markup language, which is a formal language used to add encode structured documents, often by mixing formal elements and plain text.

HTML is the Hypertext Markup Language, meaning that it is designed to encode hypertext documents - that is, documents containing links to other documents on the World Wide Web. In fact, the hyperlink is just a small part of HTML and much more interesting are all the other parts of the language that allows us to produce useful documents for the web.

Importantly, HTML is a markup language not a programming language. The job of a markup language is to record the structure of a document; that structure can then be interpreted by a program to generate some output. A programming language contains instructions that will be executed (or interpreted) to carry out some action or compute some result.

Versions of HTML

The first version of HTML was developed by Tim Berners-Lee as part of his World Wide Web project along with the HTTP protocol and the URL syntax. At first it was a very simple language for encoding articles and so had tags for headings, paragraphs, lists etc. Later, the language evolved to encompass new features in the browser such as the ability to display images, tables and modify the font that text was displayed in. The evolution of HTML has been quite gradual and at times part of intense competition between browser vendors (look up the Browser Wars to get the full story). The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and later the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) tried to standardise the language but it took some time for industry practice to align with the W3C standards. Luckily now we are in a period of relative stability where the standards process aligns well with what the major browsers are able to understand.

A version of HTML is defined by a formal definition of the allowed tags and attributes and the allowed structure of an HTML document. This says that you can have a <p> tag and that it can contain a <strong> tag but that a <li> has to be inside a <ul> or <ol> tag and so on. If a document follows the rules, we say that it is valid, if it contains errors such as having an unknown tag or a tag in the wrong place it is invalid.

Early versions of HTML were subject to a lot of change and it wasn't until HTML version 4.0.1, released in 1999 that there was a bit of stability in the language and consensus about what should be included and what should be left out. Before then, HTML had grown to contain a lot of visual markup that had been developed by the browser vendors (Netscape and Microsoft) to try to make their browser look better than the competition. An example is the <font> tag introduced by Microsoft (and copied by Netscape) which could change the font used to render some text. By the time HTML 4.01 was published, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) were becoming more widely adopted and the use of markup that explicitly referred to the visual appearance of the content was discouraged.

Elements or Tags

I will sometimes talk about the <p> tag or the <p> element when talking about HTML. Tag is the textual form of the HTML page with angle brackets etc; there is an opening <p> tag and a closing </p> tag. The element is what is created when the HTML is parsed by the browser for display in the page and includes the open/close tags and the content.

Most elements require both an open and close tag but in some cases the end tag can be left out. Examples are <meta>, <img> and <br>. These elements don't have any content and so the end tag can be assumed. In some cases you will see the syntax <br/>; this is the so-called XHTML syntax borrowed from XML. Effectively, <br> and <br/> are equivalent.


The most recent version of HTML is HTML5 - note the name with no spaces which is quite different to earlier versions. HTML5 was a big change in the way that the standard was put together and followed a long break in the development of standards for HTML: HTML 4.0.1 was last updated in 2000, HTML5 was finally released in 2012. The goal of HTML5 was to standardise current practice in browsers, rather than to define new structures or limit what was possible. The W3C worked with the browser developers to agree on standards for new technologies that they had introduced. For example, being able to include audio and video elements in HTML had been possible in some browsers; HTML5 defined a standard for these that all browser vendors could agree on and implement.

The HTML Language

This section will briefly cover some of the HTML language but is not intended to be a comprehensive guide. The aim is to point out some of the high level ideas that you need to know to get started with HTML.

Document Structure

Here's a simple HTML page showing the overall structure of the document.

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang='en'>
        <title>Sample Page</title>

The first thing to mention is the low level syntax of HTML where we have start tags (<body>) and end tags (</body>) with content between these. The content might be more tags or just text but each start tag generally has a matching end tag (there are exceptions, see later).

The first line <!DOCTYPE html> is a declaration that this file is written according to the HTML5 standard. This line is optional in the sense that your page will probably work without it, but including it let's the browser know that you know what you're doing and will stick to the HTML standard. If you leave it out, the browser will assume that this is an older HTML page and might have to do more work to parse it properly. Best practice is to put this in every page.

The overall page consists of a <head> containing metadata about the page and a <body> with the page content. Certain tags are allowed only in the head section or the body.

Head Tags

The content of the <head> tag is metadata about the page and is generally not visible directly, apart from the <title> element that will define the title appearing in the browser tab. Two important tags that go here are the <link> tag that allows us to define a relationship to another resource such as a CSS stylesheet, and <script> that references Javascript code.
<script> can also be used inside the document body as we will see.

Other tags in the head define metadata that describe aspects of the page. This can be to help the browser, search engines or other web clients. Here's some meta tags from this MDN page as an example:

    <meta charset="utf-8"/>
    <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width,initial-scale=1"/>
    <meta name="theme-color" content="#ffffff"/>
    <meta name="robots" content="index, follow">
    <meta name="description" content="HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is 
       the most basic building block of the Web."/>

The viewport property tells the browser how to handle the page on a mobile device. The theme-color property provides hints about the color that could be used to display the UI elements surrounding the page. The robots property is an instruction to an automated web crawler about what it is allowed to do with links in the page and the description is a summary of the page to help a search engine index the content. Most of these are optional, the page will work for regular browser users without them, but they go towards making the page more useable and findable.

Body Tags

The body contains the content of the web page and there are many elements that can appear here. Most elements contain some text or other elements and define how their contents will appear on the page by default. For example, the <p> element denotes a paragraph and the content will be displayed as you would expect as a block of text; <strong> denotes some text that should be emphasised and will be shown in bold by default.

We can talk about two things for each element: the meaning and the default visual appearance. The meaning of an element is the intended use of the element to denote a part of the page. For example, 'this text is a paragraph', 'this is a table', 'here is a major heading'. Each element then has a default visual appearance that makes sense for that type of content. Headings are set on their own in larger type. Paragraphs have space before and after them etc.

The visual appearance of any element can be changed via a CSS stylesheet so what we get by default is only a default. You can make headings be small and green if you wish.

Semantic Markup

You will see references to Semantic HTML where 'semantic' means the meaning of each element. The idea here is that there are many elements that have the same default visual appearance but we should chose the element that describes the meaning of the part of the document we're marking up. So, use <h1> for the main heading in the page rather than using <p> and applying your own stylesheet. Using the right elements makes your page more accessible. The browser will know where the headings are and a search engine will be able to understand the structure of your page more easily. Blind users rely on well structured semantic HTML to help them to navigate your page using a screen-reader. So, learn as much as you can about the different elements available to you and use one with the right meaning in your page.

Inline or Block

Some elements are intended to mark up blocks of content and by default will be displayed as rectangles with space around them in the page. The obvious block is <p> which displays a block of text but there are many others such as <header>, <footer> which define larger sections of the page. One important example is <div> which is a block with no semantics. It is often used with an id or class attribute as a way of identifying part of the page to apply styles to. Eg. <div id='main'>...</div>.

Another class of elements are those that are used inline in the content of a block. Examples are <strong>text</strong> and <a href="link.html">a link</a> both of which could occur inside a paragraph for example and would affect how the enclosed text is displayed or behaves. There is also a generic inline element <span> which can be used in a similar way to the <div> block tag to apply styles.

HTML Forms

An important group of HTML tags are those that describe forms. Forms allow user interaction with the page - entering text, selecting from drop-down menus, clicking buttons. The original design of forms was as a way of gathering user input to be sent back to the server for processing. They are still used this way but in many cases these days, the form data may be processed in the page using Javascript rather than being sent to the server. Here we'll look at how forms are built and their default semantics.

Here is an example form:

<form method="POST" action="/process">
       <label for="name">Name</label>
       <input name="name">
        <label for="age">Age</label>
        <input name="age" type="number" min=0 max=110>
        <label for="message">Message Text</label>
        <textarea name="message"></textarea>
        <input type="submit" value="Submit Message">

The <form> element encloses the entire form and the two attributes on that element define what should happen when the form is submitted. In this case we will use a POST request (see HTTP) to the URL /process to submit the form. It would also be possible to use a GET request and for the action to be a full URL.

Inside the form, the first thing to note is that we can include structural tags like <div> to help lay out the form nicely. In this case I would use CSS rules to make the form display appropriately. The form specific tags are <label>, which defines a label for a given form input, and <input> or <textarea> which define input controls.

The <input> tag is very general and can be used for different kinds of user input. The simplest, as in my name input, is a text box where the user can enter text. The next example shows the use of the type attribute, in this case to define the input as a numeric entry. As you'll see from the MDN reference there are many possible values for the type attribute from button to date to create different kinds of input control. The <textarea> element defines a multi-line text entry.

Each of the input control elements has a name attribute that defines a name for the input. These names will be sent to the server and can be accessed from Javascript code running in the browser. Input controls can also have a value attribute to define an initial value for the input and a placeholder attribute that defines some placeholder text to show in the input if no value is present.