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What Is HTML?


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(I hope that design-related site content as well as site code, accessibility and usability are covered by this section. Some of the formatting I intend to use in the actual article will obviously be a bit different to how it is here. Every instance of all shortened terms will have title attributes so their full version is easy to find.


The idea is that this will be an introductory piece for my upcoming Site Surgeon articles section. I think that peer review of artices before they are published as being fact is important, especially when claiming a level of expertise on the subject. Please nit-pick; I don't want to keep correcting it for the rest of my life!)



What Is HTML?

Summary: HTML is a simple way to give structural formatting to plain text files. The most important aspect of HTML documents is the way they can be linked together, creating the network of knowledge and information known as the World Wide Web.


The initials "HTML" stand for "HyperText Markup Language".


A Brief History of Hypertext

In the late 20th century, plain text was becoming inadequate for the many diverse types of written document which people wanted to share. Complicated formats were developed to allow fancy formatting but they were expensive to create and difficult to use. What authors needed was a straightforward way to "mark up" plain text documents so that a viewer program (normally called a "user agent") would present the headings, paragraphs and other elements in a more useful way.


The solution was to use special sequences of punctuation and letters to represent the start and end of these special elements. A variety of "markup language" formats were developed and HTML became the one which was most widely adopted.



How it Works

In HTML, the "lesser than" symbol (<) indicates the start of a special sequence of characters and the "greater than" symbol (>) indicates the end of that sequence. Each sequence is normally called a "tag" and there are two types: Start tags which indicate the beginning of a formatting element and end tags which indicate the end of an element.


For example, the tags required for a normal paragraph element:

<p>This is a paragraph element which is started by the <p> tag.  It is closed by a tag which looks quite similar but has a forward slash (/) just after it begins.</p>


This was exactly the sort of simplicity which authors had been in need of. A set of short, plain text tags to control structural formatting without complicated editors. Many other elements are included in HTML, such as headings, lists and tables, which makes it extremely versatile.



Connecting Pages

A revolutionary feature of HTML was the ability to create "hyperlinks" to other documents, allowing a user to easily navigate between related pages. To create a link, the concept of start tags and end tags is extended to allow an extra detail in the start tag, normally called an attribute. The name of the tag used to create links is called an anchor.


For example:

<a href="http://sitesurgeon.co.uk">Site Surgeon</a>

To explain this step by step:-

  1. The <a section is the start tag for the anchor element.
  2. The href="http://sitesurgeon.co.uk" is the attribute which tells the user agent where the link leads to.
  3. The > after that closes the anchor's start tag.
  4. The text "Site Surgeon" is what you would see as the link text on the web page which you could click on.
  5. The </a tells the user agent that this is the end tag for the anchor element.
  6. The final > closes the end tag of the anchor element, which completes the anchor element and the hyperlink. Whew!
A user agent will understand this and will create the element automatically. Your user agent makes the element like this: Site Surgeon



World Wide Web

Authors are completely free to create links to any other page they find on the Web. Since there are many authors creating many pages, the hyperlinks between them create an intricate network of relationships between different articles and websites. Users navigate through this web of relationships by clicking links. The use of search engines to narrow down the number of relevant links makes the massive scale of the Web a little more manageable.


It is my opinion that the amazing success of the Web is due in no small part to the simplicity and freedom offered by the HTML technology its content is written in.

Edited by Cerbera
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Not too shabby.


But I think this particular article isn't so much an explanation, but rather a history of HTML. Which could lead reader on a different trail than what they had expected.


It also appears too short, with a couple of paragraphs just dropping off. A paragraph closing sentence would suffice there.

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You should add a bit of general internet history, dating back to ArpaNet. Otherwise, it's pretty solid.

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Hmm, interesting feedback. I decided that the clearest way to explain HTML to people who didn't know about it would be to skim over the way it was created, rather than analyse the way it is applied. It's not meant to be a History of HTML article, it's supposed to explain to people who have never seen a <body> tag in their life basically what HTML is and does. I intend to write my article index with each article getting a short description, so hopefully that will prepare people for what it contains.


In trying to keep it short I've ended up with a rather clipped article. Any ideas which sections could do with an extra couple of sentences? I think the "Connecting Pages" section is rather clumsy, any others which don't come across well?

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