hgroups and sub-titles

I realise that queries or concerns about HTML 5 elements should make their way onto the WHATWG mailing list, but I just wanted to get a few thoughts out on here about what I’ve spent far too long discussing at work recently. It’s perfectly likely that I’ve totally got the wrong end of the proverbial, so this is just me trying to get my mind straight on why I feel something about this is unnatural and I welcome comments to help clarify or discuss.

So, hgroup, eh?

hgroup is one of the new elements featuring in the HTML 5 specification. It’s purpose, quite simply, is to group two or more headings together into one block so that subheadings are treated differently and only the first heading becomes part of the document outline.

The hgroup element is typically used to group a set of one or more h1-h6 elements — to group, for example, a section title and an accompanying subtitle.

From the current HTML5 working draft

The WHATWG wiki has the following rationale for requiring the hgroup element:

The point of <hgroup> is to hide the subtitle from the outlining algorithm

WHATWG wiki

Over on HTML5 Doctor, John Allsopp appears to find fault with this element also and suggests that the requirement for hgroup is symptomatic of a flaw in the outlining algorithm. I can see his point, but I’m more concerned that it’s a fundamentally inaccurate use of a heading.

In my mind, headings are designed to denote sections. At least, that’s what they were used for in HTML 4. Things either went in a heading, because they denoted a new section of content, or they didn’t. This is Frances the idealist speaking, I realise this, but still.

Let’s say I had a new website about a children’s story about monsters, and I wanted to title it “Monsters live under my bed”, but it could also have a sub-title or strap-line. As an author, I either want my title to be “Monsters live under my bed. Where things go bump in the night” or I want it to be “Monsters live under my bed” and the next line is incidental and a supplementary strap-line and not something I would consider to be part of my title.

Currently, I might do any of the following:

<h1>Monsters live under my bed 
Where things go bump in the night
</h1>

Example wrapped for legibility, but my story title is the full text and is in a heading.

<h1>Monsters live under my bed 
<span>Where things go bump in the night</span>
</h1>

This one is mostly a stylistic example. The strapline needs to look like a strapline, so I’ve stuck a span around it (yeah, I know…), but fundamentally I’m still considering it to be part of the title. My story’s name is the full text.

<h1>Monsters live under my bed</h1>
<p>Where things go bump in the night</p>

In this case, the title of my story is only “Monsters live under my bed” and because HTML 4 doesn’t really offer a suitable element that I would consider “a sub header that isn’t a new section of the document” I’ve stuck the sub-title text in a paragraph.

<h1>Monsters live under my bed</h1>
<h2>Where things go bump in the night</h2>

This one suggests that I have a title and then the first chapter beneath the title is “Where things go bump in the night”. That second line is no longer the title of my kids story. The h2 would be a new indented item in an outline and would suggest that further within the document I may find more h2s and that I have stepped into the document by a level.

What HTML 5 says you would do is this if you want a sub-title/sub-heading is:

<hgroup>
<h1>Monsters live under my bed</h1>
<h2>Things that go bump in the night</h2>
</hgroup>

This has the effect of making that h2 not appear in the outline, since it will no longer create a new section. The outline now considers that the title of my story is again “Monsters live under my bed”. Any content that comes after this would be within the section titled by the h1. The h2 doesn’t count as the start of a new section (as it would if there was no hgroup wrapper). The contents of the h2 is considered a special non-sectioning-heading case, but it’s still in a heading element. But if it’s meant to be a heading, why isn’t it in the h1? Gah!

I kind of have the feeling that what we should have at our disposal is something that looks more like the following, which allows for a heading and some sort of sub-title(s) (naming isn’t my strong point, I’ve picked ‘strapline’ fairly arbitrarily, but essentially I imagine it as a non-heading sub-title of some nature – maybe even subheading?). It’s not as if hgroup is allowed to hold anything other than headings anyway.

<h1>Monsters live under my bed</h1>
<strapline>Where things go bump in the night<strapline>

It satisfies my problem with using lower numbered headings for things you consider to either be associated as part of the first heading (or rather, supplementary to it) or not actually headings at all. If I want my full title to be all of the above, it can all go in the h1. If I don’t consider the second line to be part of a heading, it gets to go in it’s own non-heading supplementary titling element. The rationale quoted above specifically says “subtitle”, although I noticed the current editor’s draft for hgroup does mention “subheadings”.

Do you follow my drift?

If we’re in the business of having the opportunity to create new elements, can’t we just create one that actually satisfies the requirement explicitly rather than sort of allow authors to do things that seem somehow hypocritical to the point of heading elements in most other contexts. I also realise that purist intentions fall waaaaay down the list of priorities when compared to the requirements of paving existing usage, but as an author as well, I feel that there’s something fundamentally inaccurate about treating a heading as a non-heading. As an author I want to be able to be as accurate as possible.

Is it just time for me to let go of the idea that headings do the job of creating and naming sections in a document outline?

Aren’t semantics fun!