Towards a Semantics for XML Markup

Allen Renear, David Dubin, C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen


Although XML Document Type Definitions provide a mechanism for specifying, in machine-readable form, the syntax of an XML markup language, there is no comparable mechanism for specifying the semantics of an XML vocabulary. That is, there is no way to characterize the meaning of XML markup so that the facts and relationships represented by the occurrence of XML constructs can be explicitly, comprehensively, and mechanically identified. This has serious practical and theoretical consequences. On the positive side, XML constructs can be assigned arbitrary semantics and used in application areas not foreseen by the original designers. On the less positive side, both content developers and application engineers must rely upon prose documentation, or, worse, conjectures about the intention of the markup language designer — a process that is time-consuming, error-prone, incomplete, and unverifiable, even when the language designer properly documents the language. In addition, the lack of a substantial body of research in markup semantics means that digital document processing is undertheorized as an engineering application area. Although there are some related projects underway (XML Schema, RDF, the Semantic Web) which provide relevant results, none of these projects directly and comprehensively address the core problems of XML markup semantics. This paper (i) summarizes the history of the concept of markup meaning, (ii) characterizes the specific problems that motivate the need for a formal semantics for XML and (iii) describes an ongoing research project — the BECHAMEL Markup Semantics Project — that is attempting to develop such a semantics.


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