‘Main’ Element Lands a Starring Role in HTML

By | September 14, 2015

HTML5 introduces several new tags that give HTML more semantic meaning. There’s <nav> for navigation elements, <header> for headers, <footer> for footers and now a new element has been added to the HTML draft spec — <main>, to wrap around, well, the main content on a page.

As we reported back when the W3C’s HTML Working Group first considered adding it to the list of HTML elements, the primary purpose of the main element is to map the WAI-ARIA landmark role “main” to an HTML element.

Thanks to the hard work of developer Steve Faulkner, who wrote up the proposal for <main> and did much of the hard work convincing the Working Group that it was worth adding to the spec, you can start using the main element today. In fact <main> is already natively supported in nightly builds of Firefox and Chrome.

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether more than one <main> element should be allowed on the page. Currently the W3C’s draft of the spec explicitly prohibits more than one <main> per page, but the WHATWG’s version of the spec is less specific.

It might sound counter-intuitive to have more than one <main> per page, but the argument is that the rest of the new block level tags have no such restrictions. In other words, there can be more than one<header>, more than one <footer> and more than one <nav> so why not more than one <main>? Developer Jeremy Keith has a post on why more than one <main> could be a good idea. [Update: There’s also been some discussion on the HTML WG mailing list and a call for supporting data. As Steven Falkner notes in the comments below “the discussion continues, but at this stage there is no evidence that such a change will bring a benefit to users and may well complicate the usage of the feature and dilute its meaning and benefit for users.”]

For now we suggest sticking to just one main element per page, which simplifies using <main>. Chances are you have something like <div id="main"> in your code right now. To use the new main element, just rewrite that to be <main role="main">.

The role="main" may seem redundant, and someday it will be, but right now it acts as a polyfill for older web browsers, ensuring that they map the element to accessibility APIs. Older browsers will also need to be told about the element’s block level status with main {display:block;}. HTML5 shiv, a popular way to add support for the new elements to older browsers, has already been updated to support <main>.

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