Skeletons in the closet: Saying what markup means

  1. 1. C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen

    World Wide Web Consortium (

  2. 2. Allen H. Renear

    Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship - University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

  3. 3. Claus Huitfeldt

    Department of Philosophy - University of Bergen

  4. 4. David Dubin

    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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Skeletons in the closet: Saying what markup means


World Wide Web Consortium


University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana


University of Bergen


University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana


University of Tübingen







Our immediate area of concern is the problem of providing a clear, explicit
account of the meaning and interpretation of markup.
Scores of projects in humanities computing and elsewhere assume implicitly that
markup is meaningful, and use its meaning to govern the processing of the data.
A number of authors have described systems for exploiting information about the
meaning or interpretation of markup; among those most relevant to the work
described here are Simons (1997 and 1999), Welty and Ide (1999), Ramalho et al.
(1999), and Sperberg-McQueen et al. (2000 and 2001).
While a complete account of the "meaning of markup" may seem daunting, at least
part of this project appears manageable: explaining how to determine the set of
inferences about a document which are "licensed", implicitly or explicitly, by
its markup. This may or may not be all there is to an account of the meaning of
markup, but it is certainly a significant part of any account -- and doesn't
seem, on its face at least, to be particularly difficult to provide.
However, it proves remarkably difficult to find, in the literature, any
straightforward account of how one can go about interpreting markup in such a
way as to draw all and only the correct inferences from it. For the most part,
the papers cited have limited themselves to describing how such a system would
work in theory, rather than describing a practical instantiation of the idea.
Designers and users of markup systems, meanwhile, have relied on human
understanding rather than on automated systems to interpret the markup in
Sperberg-McQueen et al. (2000) describe at some length a 'straw man' proposal for
defining the proper interpretation of markup in a given markup language. In
particular, they identify the meaning of markup in a document as the set of
inferences authorized by it, and propose that it ought to be possible to
generate those inferences from the document mechanically, following certain
simple rules. Having set the strawman up, they then proceed to dismantle it,
noting a number of problems in the rules they have proposed for generating the
inferences. They sketch in general terms how a better account of meaning and
interpretation in markup could be constructed, but leave the actual construction
as an exercise for the reader.
This paper describes a concrete realization of one part of the 'framework' model
proposed in Sperberg-McQueen et al. (2000), and outlines some of the problems
encountered in specifying the inferences licensed by commonly used DTDs. (Other
parts of the framework model are also being worked on, but the description of
that work is out of scope for this paper.)
We focus here on the development of a notation (specifically, an SGML/XML DTD)
for expressing what Sperberg-McQueen et al. (2000 and 2001) call "sentence
skeletons", or "skeleton sentences". These are sentences, either in English or
some other natural language or in some formal notation, for expressing the
meaning of constructs in a markup language. They are called sentence skeletons,
rather than full sentences, because they have blanks at various key locations; a
system for automatic interpretation of marked up documents will generate actual
sentences by filling in the blanks in the sentence skeletons with appropriate
values from the documents themselves.
In existing markup systems, the appropriate values are often to be taken from
whatever occurs in the document at a specific location. In the TEI DTD, for
example, the current page number for the default pagination is given by the
value of the 'n' attribute on the most recent 'pb' element, while the identifier
for the language of the text is given by the value of the 'lang' attribute on
the smallest enclosing element which actually has a value for the 'lang'
attribute; the language itself is described by whatever 'language' element in
the TEI header has that identifier as the value of its 'id' attribute.
In the sentence skeleton, therefore, we need to label each blank with some
expression which describes how to derive the appropriate value to be used in the
sentences constructed from this skeleton. Since these expressions typically
"point" to other nearby markup structures, Sperberg-McQueen et al. refer to them
as "deictic expressions"; they express notions like "the contents of this
element" or "the value of the 'lang' attribute on the nearest ancestor which has
such a value" or "the value of the 'type' attribute on the nearest ancestor of
type 'div'".
We will describe theoretical and practical problems arising in using sentence
skeletons to say what the markup in some commonly used DTDs actually means, in a
way that allows software to generate the correct inferences from the markup and
to exploit the information. These include the following questions among
What formalism should be used to write the sentence skeletons? We can easily
adopt some existing formalism, e.g. that of Prolog or whatever inference engine
we choose to use; can we devise a formalism that will not commit us to a
particular inference engine?
There appears to be a significant difference among (a) sentence skeletons which
serve to formulate in some formal notation the specific facts expressed by the
markup in the document, (b) sentences or sentence skeletons which express
invariant rules about specific properties captured by the markup (e.g. "The
value of the 'lang' attribute is inherited; the value of the 'n' attribute is
not inherited") and (c) sentences or sentence skeletons which express invariant
rules about textual and other constructs (e.g. "The author of a letter is
physically located at the place given in the place-date line, on the date given
in the place-date line, unless the letter is falsified or forged in some way").
Sentences in group (b) serve to capture useful generalizations about the way
markup constructs in a given DTD behave; sentences in group (c) are important
for certain kinds of inferences, but appear to have relatively little to do with
the markup itself. What is the best way to reflect these differences in function
among the sentences and sentence skeletons of a markup system?
What is the most convenient way to generate the inferencs licensed by markup?
Possibilities include ad hoc software, XSLT transformation sheets, and Prolog or
other inference tools. Our experience suggests that it may be worthwhile to
distinguish different classes of inferences, and to use different software to
derive the different classes.
In sentence skeletons like "[this element] is in English", what do the deictic
expressions like "this element" actually refer to? In some cases the inferences
appear to relate to the linguistic components of the text itself ("This document
is written in English"), and in some cases to the text's formal properties
("Augustine's Confessions is divided into 13 books"). In some cases, the markup
appears to license inferences about some object or entity in the real world
("Henry Laurens was in Charleston on 18 August 1775"), but sometimes the
entities referred to are not at all in the real world ("Harry Potter missed the
Hogwarts Express on 1 September"). In still other cases, the inferences appear
to apply to the electronic encoding of the text itself ("This metadata was last
revised on 20 July 1998") or to some other witness to the same text ("The
recipient's copy of this letter is preserved in [some particular archival
collection, with some particular call number]"). Attempting to disentangle these
lands the would-be formulator of sentence skeletons promptly in a thicket of
ontological questions which have not yet received adequate attention.
The ontological questions become even more thorny in connection with markup
systems like that of the Text Encoding Initiative, which are intended for use by
a wide variety of projects which are expected to have widely different views
about the ontological commitments to be associated with the TEI markup. Do
statements about Augustine's Confessions, for example, relate to some abstract
text distinct from each physical copy of the text, or is the phrase "Augustine's
Confessions" merely a convenient shorthand for "all the physical documents which
witness Augustine's Confessions"? It would appear essential to decide this
question in order to formulate sentence skeletons for markup languages like the
TEI, but the TEI itself is intentionally coy about the issue, in order to ensure
that textual Platonists and textual constructivists can both use TEI markup. It
is a challenge to build a similar ambiguity or vagueness into the set of
sentence skeletons which document the prescribed interpretation of TEI






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Conference Info

In review

"New Directions in Humanities Computing"

Hosted at Universität Tübingen (University of Tubingen / Tuebingen)

Tübingen, Germany

July 23, 2002 - July 28, 2008

72 works by 136 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ALLC/EADH (29), ACH/ICCH (22), ACH/ALLC (14)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None