Semantic xHTML Forms

Working with Ruby on Rails for the past four years has been great. Switching over from the PHP world was pretty easy, yet I do do some coding in that area from time to time. One great thing about Rails is its simplicity when it comes to creating a quick scaffold dump. In simple terms, it takes a database table and outputs a form element for each column into HTML. This is a quick way to visually start inputing data, but if you look at the source code, it is not very useful for designers.

The typical output for a scaffold dump is as follows:

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<form>
<label for="email">Email</label>
<input name="email" type="text" />
...
</form>

Pretty simple right? Now put on your CSS and designer hat. What do you think you could do with that output? Probably not a whole lot. That br tag is just horrendous.

This form is semi-accessible too, but we could make it even more accessible and also give more elements to work with for the CSS.

Enter the definition list

For all the forms I create and/or need to style I resort to using a definition list. By definition it fits perfectly with the use of forms. Typical forms come with two elements per column: a label and a corresponding entry field. The same thing comes with a definition list: a term (the label) and a definition (the entry field). Semantically this produces a double benefit — a more structured form for accessibility and just a few more elements to access through use of CSS.

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<form>
<dl>
<dt>
<label for="email">Email</label>
</dt>
<dd>
<input name="email" type="text" />
</dd>
...
</dl>
</form>

Granted we are introducing more markup, but I believe that is perfectly fine. The form now is ready for better CSS styling and defaults well when CSS is turned off or used by screen readers.

Filed under: Code
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