An introduction to Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML): Some Handy Rules

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

All publishing houses, magazines, and large websites have a set of rules and guidelines generally known in the trade as "Style Sheets" setting forth the requirements of "House Style." Such style sheets make sure their publications have desired degrees of uniformity, accuracy, and good design.

The rules that follow serve as a handy style sheet for web documents. Some of these rules are intended to produce HTML that will not malfunction as new versions of Netscape and Explore appear. Others derive from the need for consistency necessary to maintain and expand a large website. Errors and inconsistencies that are easily fixed on a website composed of 50 documents become crippling when dealing with sites, such as ours, that already have more than 40,000 documents and images.

1. Always close all tags. If you begin a paragraph with <p>, end it with </p>Three tags cannot be closed: <br>, <hr>, <img src="">. Can you figure out why they are exceptions to this important rule?
2. Always place within quotation marks all material that follows an equal sign inside HTML tags. Examples include what follows "align=," "a href=," "hspace."Newer webviewers will require this.
3. Never use upper case letters in HTML filenames. Most filenames are conventionally lower case. If you occasionally capitalize the first letter in your documents, both you and anyone else working on the site will inevitably misspell the filenames starting with capital letters. Result: links and images that don't work on the web server, though they may on your own machine.
4. Give each document a simple title. For example if Jane York Smith submits a number of essays on hymns, suitable titles could be "jys1.html," "jys2.html," "jys3.html," or something like "hymn1.html." Document titles like "politics.html" are confusing and unhelpful in a folder for a module about Political Science. Long folder or filenames, such as "the_benefits_of_moral_philosophy," (1) provide many more occasions for error, and (2) fill up the URL window in Netscape and Explorer, preventing you from seeing the end of URL -- something that makes working on your html documents or creating links much more difficult.
5. Never use two break characters --"<br><br> "-- when you want to create a paragraph. Such quick fixes lead to disaster when one wants to search for all paragraph tags or modify them automatically.
6. When creating or adapting a template to create a large number of documents for an entire module or for a class project, always test template or document in local version of the website. I can provide has complete versions of the course website site if you wish.
7. Never create little local websites with icons that duplicate the site's main ones as a way of making sure your images and links work inside the main site. The shortcut or "kludge" needlessly duplicates icons, producing 30 or 40 when only one is needed. The existence of multiple copies of the same icon makes it impossible for the webmaster to take advantage of html's capacity to change all appearances of one icon in a single place. During the recent re-design of the Programme site, such errors made the process take more than ten times as long as it should have -- assuming that all the errors have now been caught.
8. Start inset quotations with <blockquote>, and end them with </blockquote>; put the paired paragraph tags within the blockquote tags.Again another procedure to prepare for the time web viewers follow rigorous rules.
9. Use neutral quotes (open and closed quotes are identical) instead of so-called smart quotes, and use two hyphens instead of an m-dash.HTML and Web viewers rely on the simplest character set possible. Any special characters, such as foreign accents, require social treatment. More on this in another set of instructions on more advanced problems.

Related Materials

Cyberspace Web Hypertext

Last modified 22 February 2002