7.6. Entities

Entities are a mechanism for assigning names to chunks of content. As an XML parser processes a document, any entities it finds are replaced by the content of the entity.

This is a good way to have re-usable, easily changeable chunks of content in XML documents. It is also the only way to include one marked up file inside another using XML.

There are two types of entities for two different situations: general entities and parameter entities.

7.6.1. General Entities

General entities are used to assign names to reusable chunks of text. These entities can only be used in the document. They cannot be used in an XML context.

To include the text of a general entity in the document, include &entity-name; in the text. For example, consider a general entity called current.version which expands to the current version number of a product. To use it in the document, write:

<para>The current version of our product is

When the version number changes, edit the definition of the general entity, replacing the value. Then reprocess the document.

General entities can also be used to enter characters that could not otherwise be included in an XML document. For example, < and & cannot normally appear in an XML document. The XML parser sees the < symbol as the start of a tag. Likewise, when the & symbol is seen, the next text is expected to be an entity name.

These symbols can be included by using two predefined general entities: &lt; and &amp;.

General entities can only be defined within an XML context. Such definitions are usually done immediately after the DOCTYPE declaration.

Example 7.8. Defining General Entities
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN"
"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd" [
<!ENTITY current.version    "3.0-RELEASE">
<!ENTITY last.version       "2.2.7-RELEASE">

The DOCTYPE declaration has been extended by adding a square bracket at the end of the first line. The two entities are then defined over the next two lines, the square bracket is closed, and then the DOCTYPE declaration is closed.

The square brackets are necessary to indicate that the DTD indicated by the DOCTYPE declaration is being extended.

7.6.2. Parameter Entities

Parameter entities, like general entities, are used to assign names to reusable chunks of text. But parameter entities can only be used within an XML context.

Parameter entity definitions are similar to those for general entities. However, parameter entities are included with %entity-name;. The definition also includes the % between the ENTITY keyword and the name of the entity.

For a mnemonic, think Parameter entities use the Percent symbol.

Example 7.9. Defining Parameter Entities
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN"
"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd" [
<!ENTITY % entity "<!ENTITY version '1.0'>">
<!-- use the parameter entity -->

At first sight, parameter entities do not look very useful, but they make it possible to include other files into an XML document.

7.6.3. To Do…

  1. Add a general entity to example.xml.

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN"
    "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd" [
    <!ENTITY version "1.1">
    <html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">
        <title>An Example XHTML File</title>
      <!-- There may be some comments in here as well -->
        <p>This is a paragraph containing some text.</p>
        <p>This paragraph contains some more text.</p>
        <p align="right">This paragraph might be right-justified.</p>
        <p>The current version of this document is: &version;</p>
  2. Validate the document using xmllint.

  3. Load example.xml into a web browser. It may have to be copied to example.html before the browser recognizes it as an XHTML document.

    Older browsers with simple parsers may not render this file as expected. The entity reference &version; may not be replaced by the version number, or the XML context closing ]> may not be recognized and instead shown in the output.

  4. The solution is to normalize the document with an XML normalizer. The normalizer reads valid XML and writes equally valid XML which has been transformed in some way. One way the normalizer transforms the input is by expanding all the entity references in the document, replacing the entities with the text that they represent.

    xmllint can be used for this. It also has an option to drop the initial DTD section so that the closing ]> does not confuse browsers:

    % xmllint --noent --dropdtd example.xml > example.html

    A normalized copy of the document with entities expanded is produced in example.html, ready to load into a web browser.

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