Character encodings in HTML

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HTML has been in use since 1991, but HTML 4.0 (December 1997) was the first standardized version where international characters were given reasonably complete treatment. When an HTML document includes special characters outside the range of seven-bit ASCII two goals are worth considering: the information's integrity, and universal browser display.


[edit] The document character encoding

When HTML documents are served there are three ways to tell the browser what specific character encoding is to be used for display to the reader. First, HTTP headers can be sent by the web server along with each web page (HTML document). A typical HTTP header looks like this:

Content-Type: text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1

For HTML (not usually XHTML), the other method is for the HTML document to include this information at its top, inside the HEAD element.

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=US-ASCII">

XHTML documents have a third option: to express the character encoding in the XML preamble, for example

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>

These methods each advise the receiver that the file being sent uses the character encoding specified. The character encoding is often referred to as the "character set" and it indeed does limit the characters in the raw source text. However, the HTML standard states that the "charset" is to be treated as an encoding of Unicode characters and provides a way to specify characters that the "charset" does not cover. The term code page is also used similarly.

It is a bad idea to send incorrect information about the character encoding used by a document. For example, a server where multiple users may place files created on different machines cannot promise that all the files it sends will conform to the server's specification — some users may have machines with different character sets. For this reason, many servers simply do not send the information at all, thus avoiding making false promises. However, this may result in the equally bad situation where the user agent displays the document incorrectly because neither sending party has specified a character encoding.

The HTTP header specification supersedes all HTML (or XHTML) meta tag specifications, which can be a problem if the header is incorrect and one does not have the access or the knowledge to change them.

Browsers receiving a file with no character encoding information must make a blind assumption. For Western European languages, it is typical and fairly safe to assume windows-1252 (which is similar to ISO-8859-1 but has printable characters in place of some control codes that are forbidden in HTML anyway), but it is also common for browsers to assume the character set native to the machine on which they are running. The consequence of choosing incorrectly is that characters outside the printable ASCII range (32 to 126) usually appear incorrectly. This presents few problems for English-speaking users, but other languages regularly — in some cases, always — require characters outside that range. In CJK environments where there are several different multi-byte encodings in use, auto-detection is often employed.

It is increasingly common for multilingual websites to use one of the Unicode/ISO 10646 transformation formats, as this allows use of the same encoding for all languages. Generally UTF-8 is used rather than UTF-16 or UTF-32 because it is easier to handle in programming languages that assume a byte-oriented ASCII superset encoding, and it is efficient for ASCII-heavy text (which HTML tends to be).

Successful viewing of a page is not necessarily an indication that its encoding is specified correctly. If the page's creator and reader are both assuming some machine-specific character encoding, and the server does not send any identifying information, then the reader will nonetheless see the page as the creator intended, but other readers with different native sets will not see the page as intended.

[edit] Character references

In addition to native character encodings, characters can also be encoded as character references, which can be numeric character references (decimal or hexadecimal) or character entity references. Character entity references are also sometimes referred to as named entities, or HTML entities for HTML. HTML's usage of character references derives from SGML.

Character entity references have the format &name; where "name" is a case-sensitive alphanumeric string. For example, the character 'λ' can be encoded as &lambda; in an HTML 4 document. Characters <, >, " and & are used to delimit tags, attribute values, and character references. Character entity references &lt;, &gt;, &quot; and &amp;, which are predefined in HTML, XML, and SGML, can be used instead for literal representations of the characters.

Numeric character references can be in decimal format, &#DD;, where DD is a variable-width string of decimal digits. Similarly there is a hexadecimal format, &#xHHHH;, where HHHH is a variable-width string of hexadecimal digits, though many consider it good practice to never use fewer than four hex digits, and never use an odd number of hex digits (due to the correspondence of two hex digits to one byte). Unlike named entities, hexadecimal character references are case-insensitive in HTML. For example, λ can also be represented as &#955;, &#x03BB; or &#X03bb;.

Numeric references always refer to Universal Character Set code points, regardless of the page's encoding. Using numeric references that refer to UCS control code ranges is forbidden, with the exception of the linefeed, tab, and carriage return characters. That is, characters in the hexadecimal ranges 00–08, 0B–0C, 0E–1F, 7F, and 80–9F cannot be used in an HTML document, not even by reference —so "&#153;", for example, is not allowed. However, for backward compatibility with early HTML authors and browsers that ignored this restriction, raw characters and numeric character references in the 80–9F range are interpreted by some browsers as representing the characters mapped to bytes 80–9F in the Windows-1252 encoding.

Unnecessary use of HTML character references may significantly reduce HTML readability. If the character encoding for a web page is chosen appropriately then HTML character references are usually only required for a few special characters (or not at all if a native Unicode encoding like UTF-8 is used).

[edit] XML character entity references

Unlike traditional HTML with its large range of character entity references, in XML there are only five predefined character entity references. These are used to escape characters that are markup sensitive in certain contexts:

  • &amp; → & (ampersand, U+0026)
  • &lt; → < (less-than sign, U+003C)
  • &gt; → > (greater-than sign, U+003E)
  • &quot; → " (quotation mark, U+0022)
  • &apos; → ' (apostrophe, U+0027)

All other character entity references have to be defined before they can be used. For example, use of &eacute; (which gives é, Latin lower-case E with acute accent, U+00E9 in Unicode) in an XML document will generate an error unless the entity has already been defined. XML also requires that the x in hexadecimal numeric references be in lowercase: for example &#xA1b rather than &#XA1b. XHTML, which is an XML application, supports the HTML 4 entity set and XML's &apos; entity, which does not appear in HTML 4.

However, use of &apos; in XHTML should generally be avoided for compatibility reasons. &#39; or &#x0027; may be used instead.

&amp; has the special problem that it starts with the character to be escaped. A simple Internet search finds thousands of sequences &amp;amp;amp;amp; ... in HTML pages for which the algorithm to replace an ampersand by the corresponding character entity reference was applied too often.

[edit] HTML character entity references

For a list of all named HTML character entity references, see List of XML and HTML character entity references (approximately 250 entries).

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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