Programmer's Notebook

HTML For the Absolute Beginner

Overview

HTML, which stands for Hypertext Markup Language, is the language used for writing web pages. HTML documents contain the text of a web page, as well as additional instructions about how the page should appear. Web browsers like Internet Explorer, FireFox, and Safari, interpret the code and then display the page according to those instructions.

HTML is a plain text format, meaning that HTML documents can be created and edited using a simple text editor such as Windows Notepad or Mac TextEdit. These programs are included as part of the operating system on their respective machines. All you need to know in order to follow the instructions on this page is how to create and save a plain text file. If you don't know how to use those tools to create and save plain text files click here for a list of resources to help get you going.

Tags and Containers

The primary unit of HTML syntax is called a tag. Tags are presented as an instruction bracketed with greater-than and less-than symbols. For example:

     <title> or <font>

With a few notable exceptions tags appear as pairs - an opening tag and a closing tag. Closing tags match the opening tag except that they begin with a forward slash:

     </title> or </font>

Tags tell the browsers how to apply structure and format to the text. Text can be large or small. It can be plain, bold, or italic. It can automatically be rendered in the default font of the system or the tag might specify a different font. Some text might be in paragraphs, other text in bulleted lists. HTML tags can also be used to instruct the browser to load images, create links to other pages, and many of the other functions that make up our experience of a web page.

The basic usage of HTML tags is that opening and closing tags pairs form a container around the text to which the tags are to be applied. In the following example, the title tags form a container around the text we wish to designate as the title of the page:

     <title>This is the Title of My Web Page</title>

Structure of an HTML Document

The basic structure of HTML documents follows the container model just described. The first tag we will formally introduce is the HTML tag itself which follows the convention of an opening and closing tag each bracketed by greater than and less than symbols:

     <html>
       ...
     </html>

All of the HTML code within a document is contained within the HTML tag pair.

The other tag which needs to be present in every HTML document is the body tag:

     <body>
     ...
     </body>

The body tag contains (predictably) the body of your document and all your visible text. Continuing the notion of containers, the body tag pair is nested within the container created by the html tag pair:

     <html>
      <body>
       ...
      </body>
     </html>

Hello World

We're now ready to create our first HTML document. In keeping with a tradition nearly as old as computing itself, we will create a web page that announces itself to the world. Our Hello World document will build on the containers we established in the previous example and simply add the text we wish to display - in this case "Hello World." To try this example yourself, you can either type or copy and paste the following code into a text editor and save the plain text file with an html extension - i.e. hello-world.html. If you double-click or otherwise launch the file your system should recognize it as a web page and open it in your default web browser:


Congratulations on your first web page!

Prettying Things Up

Now that we have our basic structure in place we can begin to add some formatting to our documents. The next tag we'll consider is actually part of a family of tags - the headings tags. HTML provides six headings tags numbered 1 to 6 which take the format:

     <h1>...</h1>

The headings tags change the size and style of the text between them. If you were to save the following as an html file:


Depending on your browser's default settings, the text on your page should display something like this:

Hello World

The remaining five headings tags should get progressively smaller. Here is some code that lines them all up for you:


Depending again on your browser's default settings, the text on your page should display something like this:

Heading 1
Heading 2
Heading 3
Heading 4
Heading 5
Heading 6
Some plain text for contrast

White Space and New Lines

A very important concept to understand in HTML layout, is the fact that HTML for the most part ignores extra spaces and line breaks in the text file you create. In other words, a section of your HTML might look like this in your text editor:

     This sentence is
    

            all going to appear
     on one line.

But it would actually render like this in your browser:

This sentence is all going to appear on one line.

Although this behavior might seem a little counterintuitive, the reason is simple enough. The web browser expects the format instructions to come in HTML tags. Ignoring any apparent format within the text file prevents contradictions in rendering the page, while at the same time leaving the door open for you to format your code to be as readable as possible when viewed in a text editor.

Paragraphs

The paragraph tag is simply the letter p enclosed in brackets. The complete syntax takes the form:

     <p>
       ...
     </p>

The browser will insert a blank line in between the sections of text that you indicate as paragraphs, giving you now some control over the layout of your page. To see how this works you can experiment with the following sample:


The Head Section

The head tag:

     <head>
       ...
     </head>

is in some ways the functional compliment to the body tag. Structurally, the head section precedes the body section, while both are contained within the html tags:

     <html>
      <head>
       ...
      </head>
      <body>
       ...
      </body>
     </html>

You'll recall that the body tag contains the body of your document and all your visible text. The head section contains global information about your document that is separate from the content. It may contain information about the author of the page, the language of the page, a description, and a wealth of other information including special style instructions. One of the most common elements found in the head section - one found in virtually every web page - is a title. Although the text of a page title does not appear on the page, most browsers show the title in the window caption bar. Also, search engines, directories, and other web page index systems tend to use the title provided in the tag as the name of the page. The title tag was already gently introduced in an earlier example. Now we'll see that the title tag - and the text of the title - is placed in the head section. The sample below is identical to the example provided in the section on paragraphs, except now a head section has been added in the appropriate place and contains a title:


Wrapping Up and Moving On

You should now have a grasp of the basic concepts in writing HTML.

  • HTML is made up of plain text accompanied by tags which contain formatting and other special instructions for the web browser.
  • Opening and closing tags pairs form a container around the text to which the tags are to be applied.
  • HTML documents themselves are contained within HTML tags.
  • The body section holds all your visible text.
  • The head section contains global information about your document that is separate from the content.

Armed with this basic understanding you should be well prepared to start learning HTML in earnest. From this point your journey need not necessarily be linear. Take advantage of the countless HTML references, articles and tutorials across the web. There are more than 80 tags in the last official HTML specification and you will want to try to develop a sense of what these tags are and therefore what possibilities they open. It will probably take some time, and some frustration, before you are able to design web pages to your own satisfaction. But be patient and it will come.

Good Luck!

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