Uses for the '"' entity in HTML

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I am revising some XHTML files authored by another party. As part of this effort, I am doing some bulk editing via Linq to XML.

I've just noticed that some of the original source XHTML files contain the " HTML entity in text nodes within those files. For instance:

<p>Greeting: &quot;Hello, World!&quot;</p>

And that when recovering the XHTML text via XElement.ToString(), the &quot; entities are being replaced by plain double-quotes:

<p>Greeting: "Hello, World!"</p>

Question: Can anyone tell me what the motivation might have been for the original author to use the &quot; entities instead of plain double-quotes? Did those entities serve a purpose which I don't fully appreciate? Or, were they truly unnecessary as I suspect?

I do understand that &quot; would be necessary in certain contexts, such as when there is a need to place a double-quote within an HTML attribute. For instance:

<a href="/images/hello_world.jpg" alt="Greeting: &quot;Hello, World!&quot;">
  Greeting</a>

It is impossible, and unnecessary, to know the motivation for using &quot; in element content, but possible motives include: misunderstanding of HTML rules; use of software that generates such code (probably because its author thought it was "safer"); and misunderstanding of the meaning of &quot;: many people seem to think it produces "smart quotes" (they apparently never looked at the actual results).

Anyway, there is never any need to use &quot; in element content in HTML (XHTML or any other HTML version). There is nothing in any HTML specification that would assign any special meaning to the plain character " there.

As the question says, it has its role in attribute values, but even in them, it is mostly simpler to just use single quotes as delimiters if the value contains a double quote, e.g. alt='Greeting: "Hello, World!"' or, if you are allowed to correct errors in natural language texts, to use proper quotation marks, e.g. alt="Greeting: "Hello, World!""

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Reason #1

There was a point where buggy/lazy implementations of HTML/XHTML renderers were more common than those that got it right. Many years ago, I regularly encountered rendering problems in mainstream browsers resulting from the use of unencoded quote chars in regular text content of HTML/XHTML documents. Though the HTML spec has never disallowed use of these chars in text content, it became fairly standard practice to encode them anyway, so that non-spec-compliant browsers and other processors would handle them more gracefully. As a result, many "old-timers" may still do this reflexively. It is not incorrect, though it is now probably unnecessary, unless you're targeting some very archaic platforms.

Reason #2

When HTML content is generated dynamically, for example, by populating an HTML template with simple string values from a database, it's necessary to encode each value before embedding it in the generated content. Some common server-side languages provided a single function for this purpose, which simply encoded all chars that might be invalid in some context within an HTML document. Notably, PHP's htmlspecialchars() function is one such example. Though there are optional arguments to htmlspecialchars() that will cause it to ignore quotes, those arguments were (and are) rarely used by authors of basic template-driven systems. The result is that all "special chars" are encoded everywhere they occur in the generated HTML, without regard for the context in which they occur. Again, this is not incorrect, it's simply unnecessary.

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In my experience it may be the result of auto-generation by a string-based tools, where the author did not understand the rules of HTML.

When some developers generate HTML without the use of special XML-oriented tools, they may try to be sure the resulting HTML is valid by taking the approach that everything must be escaped.

Referring to your example, the reason why every occurrence of " is represented by &quot; could be because using that approach, you can safely use such "special" characters in both attributes and values.

Another motivation I've seen is where people believe, "We must explicitly show that our symbols are not part of the syntax." Whereas, valid HTML can be created by using the proper string-manipulation tools, see the previous paragraph again.

Here is some pseudo-code loosely based on C#, although it is preferred to use valid methods and tools:

public class HtmlAndXmlWriter
{
    private string Escape(string badString)
    {
        return badString.Replace("&", "&amp;").Replace("\"", "&quot;").Replace("'", "&apos;").Replace(">", "&gt;").Replace("<", "&lt;");

    }

    public string GetHtmlFromOutObject(Object obj)
    {
        return "<div class='type_" + Escape(obj.Type) + "'>" + Escape(obj.Value) + "</div>";    

    }

}

It's really very common to see such approaches taken to generate HTML.

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As other answers pointed out, it is most likely generated by some tool.

But if I were the original author of the file, my answer would be: Consistency.

If I am not allowed to put double quotes in my attributes, why put them in the element's content ? Why do these specs always have these exceptional cases .. If I had to write the HTML spec, I would say All double quotes need to be encoded. Done.

Today it is like In attribute values we need to encode double quotes, except when the attribute value itself is defined by single quotes. In the content of elements, double quotes can be, but are not required to be, encoded. (And I am surely forgetting some cases here).

Double quotes are a keyword of the spec, encode them. Lesser/greater than are a keyword of the spec, encode them. etc..

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It is likely because they used a single function for escaping attributes and text nodes. &amp; doesn't do any harm so why complicate your code and make it more error-prone by having two escaping functions and having to pick between them?

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Comments
  • Of potential interest: Search engine for special characters?. For example, to search for &quot; via SymbolHound.
  • fileformat.info/format/w3c/htmlentity.htm
  • Interestingly enough, in the original source files I am working with, there are occurences of Left Double Quotation Mark (&ldquo;) and Right Double Quotation Mark (&rdquo;).
  • A full list of the 252 Character entity references in HTML (and 253 in XHTML).
  • Any idea why Jekyll always converts HTML bodies using these escaped HTML symbols? Like... when I converted my Tumblr blog to Jekyll, it did this: <blockquote>&ldquo;Your ability to become a successful entrepreneur is about ...
  • I know this question was asked a long time ago, but if the content was dynamically generated (with JS or something else) it might have been necessary to use &quot;. For example: element.innerHTML = "Greeting: &quot;Hello World!&quot;"; so as to not break the string. Now, of course, there are other ways to do this (template literals or single quotes), but for that scenario, it would have been a viable solution.
  • Hmmm, without using special XML-oriented tools, it would generally not be possible to distinguish the quotes that surround attribute values from the quotes that might appear within attribute values.
  • no, see something like this: void SerializeAsXml( MyStructure obj, TextWriter out) { out.WriteLine("<start>"); out.WriteLine("<item id=\""+obj.Id+"\" code=\""+escaped(obj.Code)+"\">"+escaped(obj.Value)+"</item></start>"); guess what is "escaped(str)->str" )) - string oriented tools are ALWAYS such not-pretty things...
  • Yes, I see! In your example, the code that is generating the HTML is escaping only the values of every attribute. That said, is escaped() a roll-your-own escape function? Or something from a library such as the .NET Framework? (I encourage you to incorporate your code example into your answer.)
  • It was just a sample of bad code, written on C# because it's my main language. Whrere mountings of such coding in PHP, Python, Java, C#, C, Erlang and LISP ))) . While where are tons of adequate modules to do it well (in .NET it's XElement family for ex.) But bad code is forever-thing. And it's especially existed in different page-generators and mvc-views engines - they do such escaping to don't mind about valid structure.