The cite element in HTML 4.01 and HTML 5

Since I got a hang of separating structure, presentation and behaviour in web pages, I have been interested in semantics of HTML elements. It may be because of my academic background (I studied literature in university), but I just love marking up my web pages. Even when writing blog posts on my iPod Touch, I don’t mind squeezing in < and > signs and constantly overruling auto-correction of HTML tags. This may be the reason for writing this amount of text about an obscure, rarely used HTML element like cite.

The cite element in HTML 4

The HTML 4-specs are rather concise about the semantics of most elements. When discussing the semantically correct element to use, people people tend to look at the HTML5 draft, which I think is generally a good idea. However, in some cases the differences between HTML4 and HTML5 cause confusion.

This is definitely the case for the cite element. Some people think you should use the cite-element to mark up quotations. This is clearly not the case, as the HTML4-specs specify the q for quotations.

The HTML4-specs defines the cite element as follows:

Contains a citation or a reference to other sources.

I don’t think it was a wise choice to use the word citation, as it has different meanings with subtle differences that are sometimes not easily translated in — for instance — Dutch. As a result, it’s no wonder that some Dutch developers use cite for marking up quotations.

The HTML4-specs have two examples to illustrate the use of the cite element.

As <CITE>Harry S. Truman</CITE> said, <Q lang="en-us">The buck stops here.</Q>

More information can be found in <CITE>[ISO-0000]</CITE>.

Both examples suggest that the cite element should be used for marking up the source of a nearby quote. Opera Developer Community has a good description of cite:

The cite element is used to indicate where the nearby content comes from — when quoting a person, a book or other publication, or generally referring people to another source, that source should be wrapped in a cite element.

In my opinion, this use of the cite element is semantically relevant, although I would have added a for attribute (cf. label and input/select), to connect the cite element to the right q element. Like so:

As <cite for="quote1">Harry S. Truman</cite> said, <q lang="en-us" id="quote1">The buck stops here.</q>

Or something similar.

The cite element in HTML5

The HTML5 draft defines the cite element completely different:

The cite element represents the title of a work (e.g. a book, a paper, an essay, a poem, a score, a song, a script, a film, a TV show, a game, a sculpture, a painting, a theatre production, a play, an opera, a musical, an exhibition, etc). This can be a work that is being quoted or referenced in detail (i.e. a citation), or it can just be a work that is mentioned in passing.

A person’s name is not the title of a work [...] and the element must therefore not be used to mark up people’s names. [...]

Well, something definitely changed. Nonetheless, the document describing the HTML5 differences from HTML4, doesn’t even mention the cite element.

Let’s have a look at the differences.

In HTML4, the cite element
indicates where nearby content comes from;
can mark up people.
In HTML5, the cite element
does not need to have a relation with nearby content;
cannot be used to mark up people.

In short, HTML5 is not backward compatible with HTML4 as far as the cite element is concerned.

Why these differences?

In fact, the cite element in HTML5 is a semantic wrapper the titles books etc. Frankly, I can understand this, as the default styling of cite is italic in most browsers (I checked Firefox 3 and Safari), which probably caused the restriction from any source to just titles.1

The browser makers are wrong here. If they had defined the default styles in accordance with the HTML4 specs, they would have let cite look like plain text. I mean, why would Harry Truman’s name have to be italic in the example above? In offline texts it wouldn’t, right? I guess the initial decision to make cite italic by default was made because someone just assumed that it was intended for book titles etc.

In HTML4, we should use the i element for titles

Although I understand that HTML5 is following this practice, I would suggest to use the i element for marking up titles. Anyway, that’s what I use in HTML4:

<p><q>And if you want to give them something, give no more than alms, and let them beg for that!</q> (<cite>Friedrich Nietzsche, <i class="book">Thus spoke Zarathustra</i></cite>)</p>

Of course it’s recommended to add a semantically relevant class to the i element, book in this case. For marking up the title of a poem, I would use <i class="poem">, because in Dutch literary studies, the title of an individual poem is not displayed italic, but within single quotation marks. So, in my CSS, I could use:

i.poem {
i.poem:before {
i.poem:after {


Where does this leave us, if we want to use the cite element in a forward compatible way? ‘Forward compatible’ as in: easy to convert from HTML4.01 to HTML5. I mean, by the time HTML5 is ready I want to be able to upgrade my entire site by changing my templates and not by changing the markup of the individual posts.

I would advise to just avoid any use of cite that is not in accordance with both the HTML4 and the HTML5-specs. So, do not use it (any more) for marking up people or book titles without a nearby quotation. This means, you cannot use cite as a wrapper for making titles italic. Use the i tag with semantic class names for that.2

The best solution however is that in HTML5 cite will be defined differently. If there is a need for an element to mark up titles, think of a new element, so there is backward compatibility with HTML4.01. Or we could start a little riot....

  1. After publishing this article I searched the archives. Apparently, the default italic styling of cite did have something to do with the changing semantics of the element.
  2. I am working on implementing this consistently in this website.