HTML5 articles and sections: what’s the difference?

An article is an independent, stand-alone piece of discrete content. Think of a blogpost, or a news item.

Consider this real-world article:


<article>
<h1>Bruce Lawson is World's Sexiest Man</h1>
<p>Legions of lovely ladies voted luscious lothario Lawson as the World's Sexiest Man today.</p>
<h2>Second-sexiest man concedes defeat</h2>
<p>Remington Sharp, jQuery glamourpuss and Brighton roister-doister, was gracious in defeat. "It's cool being the second sexiest man when number one is Awesome Lawson" he said, from his swimming pool-sized jacuzzi full of supermodels.</p>
</article>

It could be syndicated, either by RSS or other means, and makes sense without further contextualisation. Just as you can syndicate partial feeds, a “teaser” article is still an article:


<article>
<a href=full-story.html>
<h1>Bruce Lawson is World's Sexiest Man</h1>
<p>Legions of lovely ladies voted luscious lothario Lawson as the World's Sexiest Man today.</p>
<p>Read more</p>
</a>
</article>

Other articles can be nested inside an article, for example a transcript to a video:


<article>
<h1>Stars celebrate Bruce Lawson</h1>
<video>…</video>

<article class=transcript>
<h1>Transcript</h1>
<p>Priyanka Chopra: "He's so hunky!"</p>
<p>Konnie Huq: "He's a snogtabulous bundle of gorgeous manhood! And I saw him first, Piggy Chops!"</p>
</article>

</article>

The transcript is complete in itself, even though it’s related to the video in the outer article. The spec says “When article elements are nested, the inner article elements represent articles that are in principle related to the contents of the outer article.”

section

Section, on the other hand, isn’t “a self-contained composition in a document, page, application, or site and that is intended to be independently distributable or reusable”. It’s either a way of sectioning a page into different subject areas, or sectioning an article into … well, sections.

Consider this article:

<article>
<h1>Important legal stuff</h1>
<h2>Carrots</h2>
<p>Thingie thingie lah lah</p>
<h2>Parsnips</h2>
<p>Thingie thingie lah lah</p>
<h2>A turnip for the books</h2>
<p>Thingie thingie lah lah</p>
<strong>Vital caveat about the information above!</strong>
</article>

Does the “vital caveat about the information above” refer to the whole article, eg everything under the introuctory h1, or does it refer only to the information under the preceding h2 (“A turnip for the books”)? In HTML4, there is no way to tell. In HTML5, the section element makes its meaning unambiguous (and therefore, more “semantic”):


<article>
<h1>Important legal stuff</h1>

<section>
<h2>Carrots</h2>
<p>Thingie thingie lah lah</p>
</section>

<section>
<h2>Parsnips</h2>
<p>Thingie thingie lah lah</p>
</section>

<section>
<h2>A turnip for the books</h2>
<p>Thingie thingie lah lah</p>
</section>

<strong>Vital caveat about the information above!</strong>
</article>

Now we can see that the vital caveat refers to the whole article. If it had been inside the final section element, it would unambiguously refer to that section alone. It would not have been correct to divide up this article with nested article elements, as they would not be independent discrete entities, which is why we used the section element.

OK. So we’ve seen that we can have article inside article and section inside article. But we can also have article inside section. What’s that all about then?

article inside section

Imagine that your content area is divided into two units, one for articles about llamas, the other for articles about root vegetables. (Or see today’s Guardian home page with its main news, a section of election picks, a section of “latest multimedia” etc).

You’re not obliged to markup your llama articles separately from your root vegetable articles, but you want to demonstrate that the two groups are thematically distinct, and perhaps you want them in separate columns, or you’ll use CSS and JavaScript to make a tabbed interface. In HTML4, you’d use our good but meaningless friend div. In HTML5, you use section which, like article invokes the HTML5 outlining algorithm, while div doesn’t because it has no meaning. (A great read on the outlining algorithm is Lachlan Hunt’s A Preview of HTML 5):


<div role=main>

<section>
<h1>Articles about llamas</h1>

<article>
<h2>The daily llama: buddhism and South American camelids</h2>
<p>blah blah</p>
</article>

<article>
<h2>Shh! Do not alarm a llama</h2>
<p>blah blah</p>
</article>

</section>

<section>
<h1>Articles about root vegetables</h1>

<article>
<h2>Carrots: the orange miracle</h2>
<p>blah blah</p>
</article>

<article>
<h2>Swedes: don't eat people, eat root vegetables</h2>
<p>blah blah</p>
</article>

</section>

</div>

Why not article? Because, in this example, each section is a collection of independent entities, each of which could be syndicated—but you wouldn’t syndicate the collection as an individual entity.

Note that a section doesn’t need to be lots of articles; it could be a collection of paragraphs explaining your creative commons licensing, an author bio or a copyright notice. In our example, each article could contain sub-articles or section, as explained above—or both.

Finally, a conclusion!

Jeremy Keith writes that authors are confused about when to use the two elements. I think the name article is a cause of confusion; perhaps post or entry or even story would be more intuitive if you’re thinking about blog or news sites (although not all sites are like that, of course).

But I disagree that the two elements are so similar that they should be amalgamated. Jeremy writes

the only thing that distinguishes the definition of article from the definition of section is the presence of the phrase “self-contained”. A section groups together thematically-related content. An article groups together self-contained thematically-related content. That distinction is too fine to warrant a separate element, in my opinion.

I agree that the difference between them is the “self-contained”ness. But, personally, I find it pretty easy to work out whether something is self-contained or not and have tried to explain it above. Your comments will hopefully let me know if I’ve explained it clearly enough. (I think it’s very tough explaining it in the terse language required in normative sections of a specification).

It seems to me that brand-new elements will require people to spend time learning them without being able to immediately understand the difference in a matching exercise. Dan Cederholm’s Simplequiz showed that in 2003 many of us didn’t understand HTML4 elements properly. How many of us would have chosen ol rather than ul from name and single line from the spec if asked the most appropriate element for breadcrumb trails, or chosen dt as the most appropriate term for the speaker’s name in a dialogue (as the HTML4 spec wrongly specifies)? But seven years down the line, I imagine we all agree that it would have been wrong to amalgamate dl, ul and ol.

I also think the spec isn’t sufficiently clear (and emailed the Working Group): the definition for article says “The article element represents a self-contained composition in a document, page, application, or site and that is intended to be independently distributable or reusable, e.g. in syndication.”

This suggests that if you have a self-contained composition that you do not intend to be distributable via syndication, you shouldn’t use article.

Section says “Authors are encouraged to use the article element instead of the section element when it would make sense to syndicate the contents of the element” – here, the intent of syndication is diluted into “it would make sense to syndicate the content”.

I suggest that article be amended to say something similar, eg “The article element represents a self-contained composition in a document, page, application, or site which would make sense if independently distributed or reused, e.g. in syndication.” so that the two mentions of article match.

If we didn’t have an article element, we’d be left with lots of different riffs on section class=article, section class=story or section class=post, which is what HTML5 tries to avoid.

47 Responses to “ HTML5 articles and sections: what’s the difference? ”

Comment by Jason Rhodes

This is a great explanation, Bruce. I think both are necessary and I’ve begun using them already for some of my own personal projects.

I see great potential for an expansion or reimagining of RSS, that if you enabled it, you could simply crawl your site for <article> blocks and syndicate them automagically.

Loving HTML5.

Comment by Ted DRAKE

I’m using article in a search engine for each result. I use section to contain the collection of results.

I was confused by article as well. The name seems to be restrictive. But then I got over the connection between blogs and news articles.

Comment by James Hart

I’m still alarmed by the way that HTML5 seems to have decided to turn the hypertext markup language into the blog markup language.

While it is clear that many kinds of web page have sections, it’s certainly not clear that many kinds of web pages – aside from blogs and new portals – have parts of their content that could be described as ‘articles’. And even in those contexts, a single article might actually be larger than a single page. Any other use of ‘article’ is using it to mark up something that, while it’s not actually, really, an article, strictly, it kind of can be treated in the same way as an article. That’s just bad naming. Like having a fruit markup language that declares an ‘apple’ element, and says ‘use it for solid, round fruit, such as apples, and oranges. Can even apply to bananas when they’re viewed from a certain angle’.

I suppose that online stores have ‘articles’, but that’s actually misleading – an article on the page about an article for sale might legitimately be marked up as an article by virtue of it being an article, not by virtue of being about an article.

An article can be larger than a single page, as well as smaller. Can the article element accurately capture the fact that this is a subsection within a larger article, which itself might make sense in isolation?

I just think something less focused on the publication of textual, journalistically presented items might have made a better choice. ‘item’, ‘contentItem’, or similar seems to sum up the intent of ‘article’, without the bloggy, newsy, magaziney overtones.

Comment by Jason Rhodes

Hmm… I think James has a good point, especially when articles break over multiple pages.

Obviously, all sites have a distinction between sections of content, and standalone pieces of content that could be pulled out and exist on their own. Maybe the ‘article’ element needs a permalink attribute, so that excerpted versions and multipage versions could link to the full version?

One last question: How is ‘section’ different from what ‘div’ is supposed to be?

Comment by Bruce

I agree with James too: “‘item’, ‘contentItem’, or similar seems to sum up the intent of ‘article’, without the bloggy, newsy, magaziney overtones.” But I think the horse has bolted here.

Jason: section and article both invoke the outlining algorithm, while div doesn’t (because it has no meaning). A great read on the outlining algorithm is Lachlan Hunt’s A Preview of HTML 5 for A List Apart. (I’ve added a link in the article, too).

Comment by Remy Sharp

Good post, but only one area still confuses me:

The article element represents a self-contained composition in a document, page, application, or site which would make sense if independently distributed or reused, e.g. in syndication

You said that article could be post or story, but because the spec says that article also covers an application it confuses matter.

For example, http://gist.github.com – if you’re logged in, you see a sidebar of saved gists – that’s fine, it’s a sidebar element, but the main content is the text box – the application (or perhaps if it was more of a stand alone widget on the page). The spec would suggest to put this in to an article element.

Currently I don’t know. For apps like http://jsbin.com I’m using divs over sections and articles. In fact, until I under it completely, I’m using article and section for content based markup and divs for non-content, non-semantic elements – and I’m including widgets and applications as not having semantics (obviously they would within them, but not at the top level).

- Remy, the Brighton roister-doister

Comment by Anne van Kesteren

Bruce asked me to name an example usage for the article element within an application. A simple example would be individual emails within an email application. They’re a component of the application and can be independently re-used. Same goes for items in a feed reader.

I don’t think the definition really goes for the text box in Remy’s example. It’s a component of the application for sure, but it does not make much sense on its own.

Comment by Grey

hi there! thanks for making the difference between and clear, now that’s really much better! :D

i have some questions here though about other uses of and , perhaps we can discuss about this a bit? :)

1. let’s say we have an e-commerce website, and there is this product listing page that we’re showing different items. does it make sense if i use for wrapping a list of products that uses to list down the products which has long description for each?

Soap Brand 1Long description
Soap Brand 2Long description
Soap Brand 3Long description

Or is strictly used for blogs or news, that it doesn’t have a place in e-commerce or other types of website? Or perhaps a still makes a better sense here?

2. let’s say we have a sidebar now, . we have different sections for the sidebar, such as

Blogroll
Twitter Updates
Related Posts

Is suitable for such usage in this situation?

Comment by Niels Matthijs

My problem with the new article tag is that “article” seems to suggests text.

When it comes to syndication, there are plenty of content types that could be syndicated, like “event”, “address” or even video. It sounds strange to wrap them in an article tag because they are in no way articles as we know them in real life.

Section is a more generic term that doesn’t have that same real life connotation, so for it would feel more natural to mark up an event with the section tag.

Comment by Mario

thanks for the writeup! It really helps to clear up confusion. My vote would have been to name article, item. Much more generic and applicable to things other than text.

Comment by John Sinclair

I’m in agreement with Comment by Jason Rhodes. Except for a few mentions on this page, all the web discussions of HTML5’s sectioning agents has centered on blog posts and news articles. Granted, we live in an age of two-paragraph chunked text, but some lengthier multi-page presentations still occur.

Offering a short story or a chapter spread across several page views, neither work having “natural” or “conceptual” internal headings, seems beyond the scope of <article> and <section>. My best guess at a solution for screen readers is to make each page a <section> with an hgroup made up of an <h1>title, an <h2>page 3 of 9. Whether or not the hgroup is margin-9999 or not, it will need to be there.

Would this be pretty close to best-practice? Or, whatever will eventually become best-practice?

Comment by bruce

John: that makes sense. You could have

header
hgroup
h1 My lovely story
h2 Part 3 of 9
/hgroup
nav
ol
page 1
page 2
/ol
/nav
/header

Comment by Bryce

I’m a little late on it but…

Finally an explanation about articles and sections that makes sense. On first read no less! Thank you Bruce.

I also agree with James. The term article has too much meaning already! Item seems like a good alternative as it has a more open traditional meaning. I think it implies ‘self-contained’ better also.

Comment by Jeff Hales

This article is finally getting me close to true understanding of the different html5 divisions! :D I still have just a few questions regarding your examples.

In your first example, would it make sense to wrap the h2+p section up as an article within the parent article? It is obviously a furtherance of the parent article, but could quite easily stand on it’s own. Of course, in it’s implicit furtherance of the parent article, couldn’t it as well be considered an aside? This is still a bit confusing.

Regarding your second example, I would just like to point out that I believe the video transcript would be a great place to utilize the summary tag if Tantek Çelik’s suggestion to make it more generally useful is accepted. At w3schools, the use of the details and summary tags are even currently being taught this way. It seems that the current working draft supports this as a good place to use an aside rather than a semantically correct summary tag.

As this particular blog post is primarily made up of discrete example/description blocks, wouldn’t it have made sense to divide it up into sections each with their own subheading? It sure would make the article easier to discuss. :p

Also, it would be wonderful if you could implement a way to preview comments before submission in your blog. :D

Comment by Bruce

Hi Jeff

“In your first example, would it make sense to wrap the h2+p section up as an article within the parent article?”

- almost, but not quite. I could certainly wrap that in a <section>, in fact “Authors are also encouraged to explicitly wrap sections in elements of sectioning content, instead of relying on the implicit sections generated by having multiple headings in one element of sectioning content.” http://dev.w3.org/html5/spec/sections.html#headings-and-sections

Regarding Tantek’s suggestion for <summary>, I’ll reserve judgement but it would be a good place for a <details> element. As for W3schools – please, please don’t use that site: it’s frequently incorrect.

“As this particular blog post is primarily made up of discrete example/description blocks, wouldn’t it have made sense to divide it up into sections each with their own subheading?” – yes, it would (see above). Dunno why I didn’t.

“it would be wonderful if you could implement a way to preview comments before submission in your blog”

- yes indeed. Over Xmas I shall hunt down a WordPress plugin and implement it.

Comment by Bert

“self-contained” is not exactly a factual, scientific term which can be interpreted unambiguously.
In your example, the section with heading “articles about llamas” could be interpreted as a self-contained collection.
So why isn’t it an article? Perhaps I write collections of articles about some subject and feed that as a whole into my RSS? In which case the collection would be an article but each article would be a section?
But like you mentioned, the RSS is not the main argument, the srgument should be “self-contained” but I have yet to see a definition of “self-contained” which is unambiguous.
Please explain to me what “self-contained” means?

Comment by Bert

To illustrate my question I continue here:

“self-contained” is relative. A whole website is self-contained in relation to the web. A page is self-contained in relation to a site. any part of a page is self-contained in relation to the page. and all of them (can) make sense on their own. Depending on the context a comment can be self-contained or not. This comment and my previous one form one comment. So are they both articles or both sections and do they make up an article together?
Maybe I am over thinking this, but I really don’t see the term “self-contained” as an easy reference.

Comment by Matias

Thanks for clarifying this. I have to agree that the difference between section and article is really difficult to grasp.
I think in most situations the clarification provided here makes it easy to know when to use article, but there are still a few situations in which I can’t decide.

For example: what about products in a webshop, lets say amazon? Should every product be in a separate article? I guess they are “self-contained” but they are just listed as a result of a search or in a category…

I would do it like this:

article
– h1: Products in category ‘garden’
– article
— img
— h1: article name
— div: description
– next articles

What do you think?

(PS: What’s the hamster doing in the bottom left corner?!)

Comment by Adrian West

Hello Bruce

I have been asked to write a book that contains a chapter on HTML5, it only deals with the semantic elements. It recommends your book Introducing HTML5 and also your personal website. The problem of the difference between section and article is covered, and I have included your excellent model markup. However, I found I needed to change the text a little to smooth the wrinkles on the foreheads of my guinea pig readers.

In the book I have stated that your original text has been modified a little, please would you agree to me using it? This the resulting page:-

Important legal stuff

Carrots
These must be orange

Parsnips
These must be white

Corgettes
These must be green

Vital caveat about the information above!
Vegetables with colours which do not conform are legal if they are labelled appropriately, e.g,. blue carrots

Best wishes

Adrian West

Comment by Adrian West

Sorry, I meant to tick the box to receive an email reply, I have ticked the box this time.

Adrian West

Comment by Graham

Absolutely Brilliant.

From reading this and other articles it does seem to make sense to me to have both <article> and <section> defined seperately in the spec, as the “self-contained” aspect of <article> makes a lot of sense and would seem to hold a lot of weight in terms of defining the usage of encapsulated information.

I also agree with “The article element represents a self-contained composition in a document, page, application, or site which would make sense if independently distributed or reused, e.g. in syndication” as this removes the “intention” meaning from the description and seems like a less ambiguous usage.

Thanks for the info, and cheers for such a concise explanation!

Comment by Saeed Neamati

I think the tag names are semantic enough to denote their usage scope. I personally divide my articles into sections, and each section has a header tag inside it. This way, I feel more semantic.

Comment by Chris Raymond

I agree with commenter 5, about how html5 seems to be trying to shoe horn all web pages into the framework of blog posts. I just now am creating a landing page to announce the availability of a translation of a history book, along with some secondary info about the original and its author. I have no idea how to define the components of the page as “articles” or a “section(s)”, or even if that would serve any meaningful purpose other than to show I know how to make an html5 document.

There is no navigation and certainly no header, though there is a footer with copyright info in it. Maybe that should be an “aside”?

If a page does not need sections or articles, can one still make a document html5?

In short, I find this all a big head scratching puzzle for web pages that are not blog posts or journal articles.

Comment by DJBaker

Perfect, finally an article that goes into some detail about and . I was particularly happy to see within as, depending on the situation, this makes logical sense.

Comment by Ido

A very clear and intuitive explanation. Thanks.

However, what I really want to know is how Google interpret sections and articles.
I assume that these semantics will have a great implication on SEO. I just hope that Google understands these tags in a similar way.

Comment by Naomi

Regarding not using w3schools.com, what would a better tutorial site be? I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve been referring people to that site and didn’t realize it has incorrect information.

Comment by Ted Drake

W3schools tells how something is used but not why or give context to the usage. Use w3c.org for the how and sites like this for the why and context.

Comment by Mike Edward Moras (e-sushi™)

Simply check the specs people:

The section element represents a generic section of a document or application. A section, in this context, is a thematic grouping of content, typically with a heading.

and

Examples of sections would be chapters, the various tabbed pages in a tabbed dialog box, or the numbered sections of a thesis. A Web site’s home page could be split into sections for an introduction, news items, and contact information.

but

Authors are encouraged to use the article element instead of the section element when it would make sense to syndicate the contents of the element.

Let me translate this into something everyone will understand: always use a section tag to define blocks of content that make sense on their own. If you have a section that contains content that could be syndicated (think: offered via RSS or ATOM feed), that section becomes an article. Actually, the only thing you have to remember is that a section is an article, if the content contained in that section can be syndicated (think “feed”).

Easy, isn’t it? ;)

Comment by Chris Raymond

Mike, your explanation makes sense when the nature of one’s site or page fits within the parameters of sections/articles. But as I and others have questioned, the issue is trying to shoehorn other kinds of content into this essentially blog-based framework.

How about landing page/microsites that for example, announce the publication of a book, or explain the thinking behind a rebranding? (These are two I have most immediate familiarity with).

Putting this into the html5 structure seems like overkill. Sure, I could make lots of “sections” for contact info, blurb about the book, header. But how is this “better” than divs with IDs? Or an entire series of paragraphs about a rebranding effort could be simultaneously a section and an article. Again, how is this improving the semantics of the web?

Comment by Marco @ Web Mentor

Great stuff, but a question. Why isn’t it alright to STYLE the section element? Furthermore, does this also apply to the ARTICLE element (as if it’s fine to style it or not?)

Comment by Bruce

Marco – who said it isn’t alright to style the section element? It’s perfectly fine to do so.

The pont is – if you’re looking for some element to wrap stuff, *purely* so you can apply styling, then use a div.

Comment by Mike

Hi Bruce – I know I’m late to the party.

I’ve so far resisted HTML5 because from what I’ve read it seems quite convoluted… but I know I need to.

Firstly, thanks for putting the article together, no pun intended :) but I had a question on your last example:

<section>
<h1>Articles about llamas</h1>

<article>
<h2>The daily llama: buddhism and South American camelids</h2>
<p>blah blah</p>
</article>

<article>
<h2>Shh! Do not alarm a llama</h2>
<p>blah blah</p>
</article>

</section>

I would argue this example of a section could also be article as well. This section is specific (to llamas), independent and self contained. It *could* be syndicated.

This is the problem in my opinion with <article> and <section>, you can find examples where the two tags overlap hence it lacks clear definition.

In my view <section>s should clearly define portions of seperate TYPES of content. The example you’ve used again lends itself more to what I would think of an <article> because of the duplicate type/format of markup.

I could make a similar argument for <section> and <div> too albeit it wouldn’t be as strong, but I would argue it.

I also agree with the other comments too – that HTML5 has been spec’d for web commentry at its core – news, blogs, forums etc. What about ecommerce? – Yes these websites could “fit” the mold, but at this stage it doesn’t seem progressive to be well… progressive?, or maybe a better way of putting it is equally considered. This is such a huge portion of the www?

Based on that argument, I also think <item> would be more appropriate than <article>. It’s more encompassing.

Comment by Apollon Zinos

Hi Bruce,
I just decided to get a bit of the notions on HTML5.
What a mess for the newcomers, yet experienced in programming.
It is quite common to present simple things in a very complicated way. It is what I used to call, since the days I was a student, “…they like to sell science…” while they should make knowledge simple.
Thanks for you simple explanation. It is common sense what you present, however, without your explanation it would have been impossible for me to get that common sense.
After all, in a newspaper we write not a section but an article that might contain one or more sections.
I am missing why an article can contain an article and why so many books and training modules claim that a section can contain an article. Should this be the case for HTML5 then I am afraid that HTML5 presents a leak of logic on logically structuring things.
Thanks Bruce, I am now a bit wiser,
Apollon Zinos

Comment by Anne S

This made me quite happy quite quickly.

Your explanation was concise and easily understood by a total beginner, and “thingie thingie parsnips” satisfied a need I hadn’t known I had, namely: the mental image of Baldrick writing code.

Thank you very much indeed.

Comment by Ellen

This is quite clear, but I can see moments when I will have to rely heavily on context for the distinction.

First example: I am using a horizontal accordion as part of a one-page website – each pane contains what would traditionally have been a “page” or link in my site’s navigation (bio, services, fees, contact). In this case, the accordion is a section, and the panes are the articles.

Second example: I am using a horizontal accordion to describe the services that I offer – counselling, workshops, mediation, report writing, web-design, clutter managment. In this case, the accordion is an article while the panes are sections (although they could also be considered articles as each service stands alone, but they are really part of a bigger picture of the “what I do” section).

Comment by Barry

What’s up, this weekend is nice designed for me, for the reason that this point in time i am reading this great educational article here at my house.