A gentle introduction to HTML
Learn the basics of block and inline styles in hypertext documents.
HTML is the most widely used markup language in technical writing. While other markup languages exist, including DITA and Markdown, no other markup language is as widespread as the Hyper Text Markup Language. HTML is the de facto language of the Web. First implemented in web browsers in 1994, the language continues to evolve. Yet the basics of HTML remain the same.
If you are just getting started in HTML, use this gentle introduction to learn about the basic element styles of HTML: block and inline. Every HTML tag or style is either block or inline; once you understand how these work, you can learn how to use other HTML tags.
Collect words to fill a paragraph
Let's start with a basic understanding of HTML and how client applications like web browsers display HTML documents. At its core, HTML collects words in a file and fills a paragraph. That means if you don't add instructions (called markup) to an HTML file, and just leave it as plain text, a web browser turns all that text into a single paragraph.
Let's start with this sample text, saved in a plain text file called index.html. This is an excerpt from The Tao of Programming, an old Internet legend about programming tales:
The Tao gave birth to machine language. Machine language gave birth to the assembler. The assembler gave birth to the compiler. Now there are ten thousand languages. But do not program in COBOL if you can avoid it.
You can put this file on a web server and access it like you would any website, or you can save it to your local disk and open it directly in a web browser. How you get the file into the web browser doesn't really matter. But you should name the file with an
.html extension, which web browsers recognize by default as an HTML file.
In this case, I've written the file on separate lines. I've also added some blank lines, to demonstrate that HTML doesn't care about extra white space. This extra space may help humans read the HTML code, but the web browser just treats it as one block by default. Viewed on a web browser, this file looks like this:
Inline and block elements
At the core of HTML is the concept of inline and block elements. You can think of block elements as always filling a rectangle. Inline elements follow only the inline text.
The basic block element is called the division, and uses the
<div> tag. The basic inline element is the span, with the
<span> tag. Most HTML tags are some kind of block element or inline element, so it helps to start with just these two to understand how they work.
<span> tags to your HTML document to see what block and inline elements look like:
<div> The Tao gave birth to machine language. Machine language gave birth to the assembler. The assembler gave birth to the compiler. Now there are ten thousand languages. <span>But do not program in COBOL if you can avoid it.</span> </div>
I've added a
<div> block element around the whole paragraph, and a
<span> around just one sentence. Notice that when I start an HTML element like
<span>, I need to provide its corresponding closing tag like
</span>. Most HTML elements are formed like this, with an opening and closing tag.
The web browser uses these tags to display HTML content in a certain way, but because
<span> don't really define any special formatting on their own, you can't see that anything has changed. Your sample paragraph looks the same as before:
You can include direct styling in these tags with a style instruction, so you can see how the block and inline elements behave. To make the boundaries of each element stand out, let's use a light blue background for the
<div> block and a pink background for the
<div style="background-color:lightblue;"> The Tao gave birth to machine language. Machine language gave birth to the assembler. The assembler gave birth to the compiler. Now there are ten thousand languages. <span style="background-color:pink;">But do not program in COBOL if you can avoid it.</span> </div>
With these changes, the entire paragraph has a light blue background. The
<div> block element is a rectangle, so the blue fills even the empty space after the last sentence ends. Meanwhile, the second sentence has a pink background. This highlight follows the sentence because
<span> is an inline element.
Most HTML elements are either block or inline. The only difference is these other elements carry some default styles, depending on what they are. For example,
<p> is a block element that has extra space above and below the block. The heading tags,
<h6>, are also block elements defined at different font sizes and text styles like italics and bold. The
<strong> tag is an inline element that displays text in a bold weight. Similarly,
<em> is also an inline element that sets the text in an italics style.
Finishing an HTML page
Some HTML elements are required. While the sample HTML file you have used display correctly on any web browser, it is not technically a correct HTML page. There are a few elements you need to add:
Every HTML document should provide a document type declaration. Use the single tag
<!DOCTYPE html> on the first line of the HTML file to define an HTML document. The HTML standard also expects you to wrap the document text in two block elements:
<html> to define the full page, and
<body> to define the document body.
<!DOCTYPE html> <html> <body> .. </body> </html>
HTML documents also need a
<head> block before the
<body> that provides meta information about the page. The only required meta information is the title of the document, defined by the
<!DOCTYPE html> <html> <head> <title>The Tao of Programming</title> </head> <body> .. </body> </html>
The supporting tags like
<body> do not change how the HTML page appears in a web browser, but they are required for a technically correct HTML document:
This gentle introduction to HTML provides just the essentials of HTML, but now that you understand block and inline elements, you're well on your way to learning how to write HTML documents using other HTML tags.