Section 4.3. Changing Text Appearance and Meaning

A number of tags change the appearance of and associate hidden meaning with text. In general, these tags can be grouped into two flavors: content-based styles and physical styles.

In addition, the W3C standard for Cascading Style Sheets is now well supported by the popular browsers, providing another, more comprehensive way for authors to control the look and layout of their document text. We describe the tag-based text styles in this chapter. See Chapter 8 for details about CSS.

4.3.1 Content-Based Styles

Content-based style tags inform the browser that the enclosed text has a specific meaning, context, or usage. The browser then formats the text in a manner consistent with that meaning, context, or usage. Note the distinction here. Content-based style tags confer meaning, not formatting. Accordingly, they are important for automated processes; machines don't care what the document looks like.

Because font style is specified via semantic clues, the browser can choose a display style that is appropriate for the user. Since such styles vary by locale, using content-based styles helps ensure that your documents will have meaning to a broader range of readers. This is particularly important when a browser is targeted at blind or handicapped readers whose display options are radically different from conventional text or are extremely limited in some way.

The current HTML and XHTML standards do not define a format for each of the content-based styles; they only specify that they must be rendered in a manner different from the regular text in a document. The standards don't even insist that the content-based styles be rendered differently from one another. In practice, you'll find that many of these tags have fairly obvious relationships with conventional print, having similar meanings and rendered styles, and are rendered in the same style and fonts by most browsers.

4.3.2 Physical Styles

We use the word "intent" a lot when we talk about content-based style tags. That's because the meaning conveyed by the tag is more important than the way a browser displays the text. In some cases, however, you might want the text to appear explicitly in some special way ? italic or bold, for example ? perhaps for legal or copyright reasons. In those cases, use a physical style for the text.

While the tendency with other text-processing systems is to control style and appearance explicitly, with HTML or XHTML you should avoid physical tags except on rare occasions. Provide the browser with as much contextual information as possible. Use the content-based styles. Even though current browsers may do nothing more than display their text in italic or bold, future browsers and various document-generation tools may use the content-based styles in any number of creative ways.