Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Design > Voices That Matter

Integrated Web Design: The Meaning of Semantics (Take I)

Nearly every web designer is guilty of forcing line breaks, creating tables that don't hold tabular data, and a host of other egregious HTML sins. Now that CSS is around, Molly E. Holzschlag slaps our hands and explains why we should pay attention to each element's content, not just its looks.
Like this article? We recommend

Surely by now you've heard or seen the term semantics being bandied about by web standards evangelists and document purists. But what does the term really signify in the context of markup, and what do you need to know about semantics to improve your markup practices? This article helps define semantics in HTML and XHTML, and gets you started using elements semantically.

Semantics Is Meaning

In English, the word semantic means "of or relating to meaning." In the science of linguistics, semantics is more explicit: It's the study of meaning based on the historical and psychological significance of words and terms. While the academic study of markup vocabularies can be thought of as a form of linguistics, the real-world practice of marking up documents semantically follows the first definition; in markup, semantics is concerned with the meaning of an element, and how that element describes the content it contains. This issue was always meant to be part of HTML, but the hacking of HTML for presentational purposes made short order of any semblance of semantic purity within the language.

However, with CSS now the primary means of managing presentation of documents in contemporary web design, and the influence of XML bringing rigor back to markup, the emphasis as we write our HTML or XHTML has moved from how our content looks to what our content means.

H1 Does Not Mean "Big, Bold, and Ugly"

There are many examples of how a markup element can be meaningful, but I've found none as crystal clear as the use of headings. If you've been designing web sites for a while, you've probably run across this problem: You want to use a heading, but you really dislike the font size that the h1 element produces. So you go with an h3 because it produces a much nicer look. (I used to do this all the time!) But markup was never really meant to be presentational. We hacked it to get presentational results because, even after CSS became available, browser support was so maddeningly inaccurate and incomplete that it was downright unreliable to use CSS. Those bad old days are gone now, and we can style h1 or h3 any way we like. This gets us back to the meaning of headings, which is as straightforward as it gets: An h1 signifies the most important heading on the page, h2 is a subheading of h1, and so on. This description has nothing at all to do with the way the heading will be styled—in fact, you can make your h1 headings appear to be visually smaller than h3 if you like. The point is this: The element you choose to use has to do with the significance of the content of that element.

A Paragraph Is a Paragraph

As we study the elements we regularly use, we begin to see how meaning versus presentation creates a more ordered, logical document.

Some of the elements we've misused are also some of markup's most critical ones. Take the p element, which is used to denote paragraphs, and the br element, used to force a line break. Anyone ever commit this markup crime?


If you place the line above in a document between some text sections, you'll get some white space, but the markup has absolutely no meaning. A paragraph tag should be used to denote a paragraph, period. A line break should be used to force a break in a line, not to gain white space. I should be taken to markup prison and/or fined for having done this for years! Fortunately, I've got CSS by my side now, and can get back to cleaner living.

Oh, I'm sure you've seen this one, too:


Many visual editors toss in that bit for the same reason: to get more space. Translated into literal terms, this means "a paragraph about a nonbreaking space character." If you see this line appear in your documents via a visual editor, best to get it out of there. It's far better to use CSS to gain that space, and you get more specific control to boot.

List Mania

One of the areas where semantic markup takes off running is in the use of lists. Here's another markup bit I've been guilty of:

<p><a href="home.html">Home</a><br>
<a href="about.html">About Us</a><br>
<a href="products.html">Products</a><br>
<a href="services.html">Services</a><br>
<a href="contact.html">Contact Us</a></p>

In fact, I still have markup like the above example on my current web site. It's like the old sayings: "The cobbler's kids never have shoes," or "A painter never paints her house." As an instructor, I go a step farther and hide behind the old "Do as I say, not as I do" approach.

I'm guilty of old-school markup here because the elements in use are simply not meaningful in reference to the content. Translated into plain speak, this markup means "Here's a paragraph. No, wait, here's a link. No, wait, here's a break." But, viewed in a browser, this markup displays a list of links.

Wait...a list of links? How meaningful is that? Extremely meaningful! So the semantically proper way to achieve the same goal is to place this information in a list. Most people use unordered lists for this purpose, but if to really go purist with a sequential navigation list, an ordered list is the most semantically correct approach:

<li><a href="home.html">Home</a></li>
<li><a href="about.html">About Us</a></li>
<li><a href="products.html">Products</a></li>
<li><a href="services.html">Services</a></li>
<li><a href="contact.html">Contact Us</a></li>

Of course, you're probably thinking "But what about the numbered items that the ordered list generates?" You're on the right track: CSS, of course. We can turn off the numbers using the CSS list-style-type property:

ol {list-style-type: none;}

With a value of none, no numbers (or in the case of an unordered list, bullets) will appear. Then you can add other styles to create beautiful navigation schemes, including horizontal designs, using lists in combination with CSS.

A Few Other Suspects

Along with headings, paragraphs, and breaks, many of us have been guilty of using other elements without concern for semantics, paying little or no attention to when we can put them to work to better help define our content. Here are a couple of instances of each:

  • blockquote. The blockquote element is best used for a quote that's at least a paragraph long—literally a block of quote. Because browsers typically add padding to this element, it's often used to hack documents or areas of documents to appear indented or padded with white space. Semantically, reserve the blockquote element for quotes, and use CSS to get margins and padding anywhere else.
  • table. The biggest HTML hack of all time. Using the table element to create a positioning grid was our only option to make our sites look great. But a table has semantic meaning: tabular data. In today's CSS-oriented design, restricting the use of table and its related elements to properly describing tabular data is semantic. Any other use is presentational.
  • address. An element of yore that no one ever uses, and that can serve to mark up literal addresses. You can then style to suit.
  • dl. The definition list and its related elements dt and dd have been around for a long time, so support is practically ubiquitous. Add style, and you've got an extremely useful, semantic means of creating meaningful and great-looking results.

Of course, these few elements are just the tip of the semantic iceberg. Many other elements in HTML and XHTML can be used semantically to enhance the meaning of your document's contents.

Take some time to study the available elements in HTML and XHTML. Begin thinking in terms of describing content in a meaningful way rather than making it look good. You can make it look almost any way you can imagine with CSS, so refining meaning is in your best interest for the long term.

Peachpit Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Peachpit and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Peachpit products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive:

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020