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XSLT: eXtensible Stylesheet Language: Transformations

XSLT is designed to transform XML into other kinds of XML, including HTML. First designed in 1999, it co-evolved with XPath, with working groups at the W3 Consortium collaborating on both. By 2007, both XPath and XSLT were well integrated together, which made XSLT a very powerful transformation language, capable of executing very precise manipulations and functions in remixing XML documents. That is really what XSLT is for: It is called a stylesheet language, which might remind you of CSS (Cascading Stylesheets), CSS is very limited by comparison with XSLT. CSS cannot change the order of elements or the content of a document, but instead simply styles the elements already in place, as its functions are limited to presentation and display. XSLT, by contrast, can generate new kinds of documents from a base XML file, and was designed to translate one form of XML into another form (as, for example: XML to XHTML, TEI to XHTML, XML to SVG (scalable vector graphics, a form of XML that plots lines and shapes), or XML to KML (or Keyhole Markup Language, a form of XML designed for plotting placemarks and routes on Google Earth and other map interfaces.

XSLT is a kind of XML document, with a single root element, <xsl:stylesheet> that contains some very important attributes that define what the XSLT is transforming, from what and into what. Following that is an <xsl:output> statement that sets rules for the output document. Then the rest of the document is typically a series of <xsl:template> rules, which are written to match on particular elements of the input document. The way XSLT does this is different from most programming languages, which describe a set order or procedure. By contrast, XSLT is a declarative language, which means that its template rules declare what to do in the event a particular element shows up in the document: The rules seek to match specific scenarios: If there is a <name> element, and a template rule to match, <template match="name">, the rule will “fire” and generate output according to scenario you have written in the template. (So, for example, you might write a template rule that matches on all <name> elements in an XML file, and outputs them all in an HTML list. Inside an <xsl:template> is typically an <xsl:apply-templates> rule which effectively calls on one or more of the elements in a file to be match the next appropriate template for them.

To get started writing an XSLT file in <oXygen/> go to File→New Document, and choose XSLT. Typically we write and run XSLT in oXygen using the “XSLT debugger” view, which we show you in the graphic below. In that view, we choose an input file and an XSLT file to run, select a kind of output, and produce it in the output window on the right:

screen capture in oXygen of XSLT debugger

XSLT’s Built-in Rules

You don’t have to write any rules at all in XSLT. You could simply write a stylesheet with no template rules, and it would output all of the plain text of your document. That’s because XSLT has built-in rules that by default with output text nodes of all elements. The built-in rules start at the root of the element, and unless they are told to stop or diverted by template rules they will walk the whole XML tree and output any text they find.

XSLT Stylesheet and Output Elements

If you open an XSLT stylesheet in <oXygen/>, as of late 2014 you will see this opening and root element. We will usually need to alter this a little:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform"
exclude-result-prefixes="xs math"


The part of this we need to alter are the @xmlns attributes, usually to add something more. These are the namespace declarations, which indicate the namespaces of the file from which we are reading (our input XML document), and the output we are writing to (XML or HTML, etc). When things go very badly wrong in XSLT and no output is generated at all, it is nearly always a namespace issue: you may have forgotten to include the appropriate namespaces! For example, in our work on the Digital Mitford project, and in some of your homework exercises, you will need to be reading from the TEI namespace and be outputting to XHTML: To do that you must add the appropriate attributes to the <xsl:stylesheet>, indicating that TEI is the default XPath namespace and that the XHTML namespace applies as well. Here is our series of declarations:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform"
exclude-result-prefixes="xs math"


Of course we don’t bother to memorize this, and typically copy and paste the namespace values from one file to the next (or by consulting pages like this one)!

The Output Statement

We need to write another “top-level” statement (an immediate child of the root element) that indicates the kind of output the XSLT file is generating. (This is necessary to output a valid HTML 5 document written in XML syntax.) The <xsl:output/> element is self-closing, and its first attribute, @method needs to designate one of the following options as its value: "xml" (which is the default), "xhtml", "html", and "text". We set "xml" here when outputting HTML 5 to avoid validation errors in our output. There are other attributes to place on the output statement, which we’ll explain by walking through this example:

<xsl:output method="xml" encoding="utf-8" indent="yes"

The method is set to xml . We set @encoding to utf-8, because it’s the universal Unicode character set, the most widely compatible character set for use on the World Wide Web. We usually set @indent to "yes" (and the other legal value is "no"): This controls whether long lines of text in your output may be “wrapped” or indented on new lines, which typically makes them easier for humans to read. The last attribute, @doctype-system, must be set to generate an HTML 5 doctype declaration in your output. (This precise setting of the @doctype-system attribute is currently, as of December 2014, the easiest way in XSLT to generate the current doctype statement for HTML 5, and the “about:legacy-compat” part of it is actually for compatibility with software that outputs HTML rather than compatibility with browsers.)

White Space: Preserve or Destroy

The last top-level elements we need to tell you about are for controlling white space in your output. These are optional, but occasionally really necessary depending on the output you need and the state of your source file:

<xsl:strip-space elements="day month year"/>

<xsl:preserve-space elements="p li name"/>

Use xsl:strip-space to remove white space inside the elements in the list. Notice that the attribute (@elements) takes a space-delimited list of element names. The idea is that you may need to remove extra spaces in the text of some of your elements, such as new-line characters and indentations at beginnings of lines, so you use strip-space to systematically remove them all. By contrast, you’d use xsl:preserve-space to keep the white space.

Usually we don’t need these elements, but when you need it, you will know, because your output will have too much white space, or your formatting will be all wrong.

Template Rules

The main part of the XSLT stylesheet are its template rules. When you write an xsl:template, you specify an @match attribute which calls out to particular elements. The value of @match can be described as “XPath-like”: it’s not really a full XPath expression, but it uses XPath syntax. This is because we do not designate the template @match to walk down the XML document tree. No. Instead, the elements come to the template rule, and if you were to write a full XPath expression with the leading // to designate walking down from the root, that would have no effect. With xsl:template rules, the elements in the input XML are matched out of context with their hierarchy. For example, if you have written a template match for <xsl:template match="div">, that rule is going to “fire” any time a div comes by from the source document.

That can be really useful if we want a template rule to match all the divs in the hierarchy and treat them the same way. But usually that is not what we want. This is where the “XPath-like” syntax comes in: In the Hamlet XML file we sometimes work with in homework exercises, you may want to process Acts (<div> elements directly under the <body>) differently from Scenes (<div> elements directly under Acts), and so, using XPath-like syntax for @match, you can write one template rule for match="body/div" and another for match="div/div". You can also use predicates; for example, to process only Hamlet’s speeches, you can write a rule for xsl:template match="sp[@who eq ’Hamlet’]". Those template rules will only match on special cases as they come up.

To write a complete template rule, you have to call for a particular kind of node in your document (usually an element, but maybe other things), and then you have to do some action with it. The action usually creates output nodes, and then goes on to apply templates to the children of the current context node that has come by. So, to output a line of poetry in the form of an HTML paragraph, just to preserve the lines, you could write the following template rule:

<xsl:template match="line">

Here is what happens when this rule fires: A <line> element drifts by this template rule and is caught by the @match attribute. The template takes its contents (basically consumes the node), and in its place it outputs an HTML <p>. What’s inside that <p> element generates its contents: <xsl:apply-templates/> by itself with no attributes says, process the contents of this element it is consuming. <xsl:apply-templates/> will process the contents of <line> and pass its child nodes on to the templates that apply to them.

You might want to process something in particular in a template rule, to direct <xsl:apply-templates/> to a next element that you want to be consumed in this particular position: perhaps something specific you would want to see next within the HTML element you are constructing, to restrict what comes next. For example, say you are working with our Georg Forster Pacific Voyage text coded in TEI, and you only want output a list of place names (coded with <placeName> in each chapter, inside an HTML unordered list (coded with an outer ul and an inner series of li (list items), with an outer list containing the Chapter headings and an inner list for each chapter holding the <placeName> elements within it. For this transformation from TEI we are going to need three template rules, to sit at different levels of our stylesheet. Here’s how we handled it:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform"
xmlns:math="http://www.w3.org/2005/xpath-functions/math" exclude-result-prefixes="xs math"
xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" version="3.0"
<xsl:output method="xhtml" indent="yes" doctype-system="http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"/>
<xsl:template match="/">
<title>Places Mentioned in Georg Forster Account</title>
<h1>Places Listed in Each Chapter of Georg Forster’s Voyage Record</h1>
<xsl:apply-templates select="//text/body//div[@type=’chapter’]"/>
<xsl:template match="div[@type='chapter']">
<xsl:apply-templates select="head/l"/>
<xsl:apply-templates select=".//placeName"/>
<xsl:template match="placeName">

In the stylesheet above, notice that the @select attribute on xsl:apply-templates is a literal XPath expression. In the template rule matching div @type="chapter" we see two ways of stepping down into a literal XPath from the current context node, whatever it is. In the first xsl:apply-templates @select, we step into a child node and then down another path step to the child of head: head/l. In the second xsl:apply-templates @select, we use the "dot" notation to indicate the current context node, which is very important because our // descendent axis notation would otherwise be read as starting from the root of the XML tree and heading all the way down, rather than reading within a specific chapter! xsl:apply-templates @select is a literal XPath expression, quite unlike what we described with the “XPath-like” syntax in the template’s @match.

Calculating and Outputting XPath Functions

If we wanted to calculate a count() or take the distinct-values() of a series of output elements, or calculate and output string-length() of a node, or otherwise execute XPath functions, we would write something like this: <xsl:value-of select="count(placeName)"/>, to deliver the calculated value of something. We would use this in place of our usual <xsl:apply-templates/>

Totally suppressing a node:

One way not to output anything for an element is to write an empty template rule for it! For example, you could ensure that none of your paragraphs were ever output if you wrote the following:

<xsl:template match="p"/>

This works to suppress the built-in rule to output text when no rules are defined, and effectively suppresses your paragraphs.

XSLT Processing: Understanding the Difference between @match and @select:

Use @match only when we’re defining a template rule.

<xsl:template match="a-pattern-wherever-it-is-that-we-want-to-match">
INSIDE HERE we do stuff to process what we’ve matched, and we instruct XSLT what to do next from this point in the document.

We use @select in the internal part, on one of two XSLT elements: <xsl:apply-templates/> or <xsl:value-of/>.

<xsl:template match="something-wherever-it-is-that-we-want-to-match"> <NEW-ELEMENT> <!--this is the new element we want to show up in the transformed document-->
<xsl:apply-templates select="something-related-by-XPath-to-this-point-we’ve-matched>
</NEW-ELEMENT> </xsl:template>

We don’t have to use @select at all! We could simply go with <xsl:apply-templates/> if we want to duplicate ALL the contents of the thing we’ve matched in this place. We use @select when we need to be selective about what we’re going to process at the points of our match. So, let’s think about this with a couple of examples, one that uses <xsl:apply-templates/> with NO @select attribute, and one that uses @select.

Example 1: simple <xsl:apply-templates/> (no @select):

<xsl:template match="div/div//head">
<h1> <xsl:apply-templates/> </h1>

This template rule makes an @match on something "XPath-like": We use XPath syntax to define it, but notice that it is NOT a full XPath expression, because we can’t see where it originates: we haven’t defined a path down to it from the root element. But what we’re doing is looking for a pattern, wherever it turns up in the XML tree: wherever we see a div/div//head (or a head element that sits in a configuration like this), go match on it, whether it appears up near the root element, or down inside a body paragraph). When we are there, the rule says, output an <h1> HTML element (for a top-level heading in HTML), and inside output the full contents of our XML <head> element, and then go on and process any children of head by the other template rules I’ve written in this XSLT file: Apply templates from this point on down the XML tree.


Example 2: <xsl:apply-templates select=".//something"> using @select (when and why we do it):

<xsl:template match="placeName">
<strong> <xsl:apply-templates select="@ref"/> </strong>

This rule says, first of all, make a template @match on any placeName, wherever it appears in my XML input file. When you are there, <xsl:apply-templates select="@ref"> says, go and process selectively: We don’t want the whole output here: What we want is ONLY the contents of the @ref attribute sitting on <placeName ref="Someplace">text-content-here </placeName>. The template rule will go and read the contents of the @ref attribute and output it here in the transformed HTML, wrapped in a <strong> element to present it as bold. <xsl:apply-templates select="@ref"> also says "go and apply the other template rules on this sheet to any children of placeName (if there are any).

Think of @select this way:

<xsl:apply-templates select="XPath-from-this-point">

Wherever our template rule has matched, the apply-templates @select expresses a definite XPath from that point—usually to a child element or to an attribute, or to some specific point that you want to process so that you don’t output the full content of the thing the template has matched on. Use @select when you want to define very specific output.

Sample Files:

Identity Transformation Stylesheet: Add line numbers to Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Transforming Shakespeare’s Sonnets to HTML

What’s Next: More on XSLT

Please continue by reading and consulting the following pages on Obdurodon as you work on XSLT homework exercises. You will likely want to come back to review them later (as we do ourselves)!