The language curmudgeon . . .

All Lists Are Ordered!

by Conrad Weisert
June 1, 2010

©2010, Information Disciplines, Inc.
This article may be circulated freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.

I cringe every time I read an HTML textbook1 or article that tells its audience about "unordered lists", the <ul> tag. What is an unordered list? Is it a set? Every serious computer scientist and student knows that a list is an ordered data structure; it has a first element and next elements until the last element. HTML's <ul> is no exception.

What the writers undoubtedly meant was "unnumbered list". Some books and articles get it right; a web search will turn up lots of entries for both terms, and they appear to mean exactly the same thing.

Of course the entries in a <ul> list are ordered. How would web page authors react if a browser, upon seeing <ul>, did a random shuffle upon the <li> entries before presenting them on the user's screen? Now that would truly be unordered.

This may be a minor quibble, but it again illustrates the pervasive amateurishness that characterizes the design of HTML and its derivatives, including CSS and XML. I may have more to say about that later.

1—Prominent early offenders include Spainhour & Quecia's Webmaster in a Nutshell (ISBN 1-56592-229-8), Robbins's Web Design in a Nutshell (ISBN 0-596-00987-9) and Castro's HTML for the World Wide Web (ISBN 0-321013007-3). We shouldn't condemn those authors, however, for repeating a gaffe they got from the language designers.

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Last modified June 1, 2010