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Originally posted November 2 2004 at 23:11 under Web. 0 Comments. Trackbacks Disabled.

Marking the Alphabet


I found myself thinking recently about how to markup the alphabet. Let me put that in a bit of context. I’m not really talking about doing something strange like I’m thinking more about each individual letter in the sequence. Specifically I was considering something like a glossary, where it is quite common to have each letter of the alphabet as a link to the section of the glossary dealing with words beginning with that letter. Now what you have there, I would think, is a list of links. So, markup as a list. But then it struck me that, at least to me and at least within English (hey, I’m not linguist so I won’t even begin to speculate on other languages—I did try asking Rachel, who has an English degree and is much better qualified to comment than I therefore, but she simply looked at me like I was strange, which is probably true), that the alphabet actually has an order. Certainly if I were to produce a list of links beginning F, P, J, A, I, R,… I’d be accused of confusing the user, and rightly so. It is expected that we see A, B, C, D, E,… there is a definite order there. So, is that an ordered list of links then?

Well, it seems not, though I’m not convinced by the answer from a purely theory point of view. Certainly from a practical point of view it doesn’t make sense to use an ordered list. Indulge me by allowing me to elaborate some more; I have nothing better to do.

First we have the HTML 4.01 spec which says:

An ordered list, created using the OL element, should contain information where order should be emphasized, as in a recipe
CSS2 Spec

Certainly, this suggests that the spec is thinking more in terms of a list of instructions. It notes that the type attribute may be used but also that this is deprecated (as an aside I do wonder if this may just be an exception to the rule that style and content should be separate. The numbering of a list is inherant to that list. The instruction Step A… doesn’t make much sense if the step is labeled as 1.). It’s noted that this allows it to be set to lower alpha (a, b, c, …) or upper alpha (A, B, C, …). The same thing can be achieved throught the use of CSS, which is how one would be looking to do it in practice, through the use of list-style-type:lower-latin and list-style-type:upper-latin (or indeed lower-alpha and upper-alpha may be used). All this tells us that it was noticed that an alphabet could imply a definite order, but it doesn’t seem to have taken into consideration how to markup the ordered order, if you see what I mean.

From a practicle standpoint it doesn’t really matter. It is pretty silly to markup the list of alphabet links as an ordered list with A, B, C, etc. as the markers. For instance, what does one then put within the

  • tags? An how could one link the markers themselves? Furthermore, if the stylesheet isn’t being used (because the user has them turned off, or the browser doesn’t support them) then the ordered list is very likely to be displayed with numbers. So an unordered list it remains.

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    Dr Ian Scott
    Croydon (and Gateshead), United Kingdom
    Bullding Services Engineer (EngDesign), PhD in Physics (University of York), football fanatic (Newcastle United), open source enthusiast (mainly Mozilla)

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