A beginner’s guide to understanding HTML

Friday, 28 February, 2020

Every time you visit a website, you benefit from a programming language which has uncanny similarities to the internet itself.

HyperText Markup Language was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the same man who developed the World Wide Web.

Like the WWW, HTML is free to use. And like the WWW, it’s now overseen by a non-profit organisation tasked with ensuring optimal performance across a spectrum of different devices.

The rapid growth of internet usage in the 1990s provided the perfect platform for HTML to become so ubiquitous that we see it dozens of times every day without realising.

The broadbanddeals.co.uk website relies on HTML to function, as does just about every website in existence.

You can view the source code behind our site by tapping CTRL-U on your PC’s keyboard. Mac users have to go into the Advanced window of Safari’s Preferences menu.

The resulting wall of text, hyperlinks and brackets might look like gobbledygook, but it’s actually surprisingly easy to interpret.

As you’d expect from a British invention, HTML operates on the principles of the English language.

You’ll see terms like “before”, “alignleft”, “quotes” and “style” cropping up repeatedly in HTML.

Indeed, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the elegant simplicity of the world’s most important programming language.

All in the family

HTML was inspired by programming languages of the 1980s, like BASIC and PASCAL.

BASIC represented the first entry point to programming for millions of people, since it underpinned iconic 1980s home computers like the Sinclair Spectrum.

However, HTML was always intended for use across networks.

Computers would download data onto any device with a network connection, before displaying it in a dedicated browser window.

Data would be transmitted using a transfer protocol called HyperText – which gave us the HTTP prefix before website addresses.

A more recent addition to this is the ‘s’ suffix, denoting HyperText Transfer Protocol content which is transmitted securely.

The second part of a web address indicates it’s part of the World Wide Web, which was Sir Tim’s other great gift to the world.

Five alive

As with any programming language or software system, HTML has been constantly evolving since it arrived in the early 1990s.

Version 1.0 quickly gave way to 2.0, which is widely seen as the real starting point for the language’s global adoption.

After almost two decades of service, HTML 4.0 was usurped by HTML 5.0, developed over many years by the World Wide Web Consortium – or W3C to their friends.

Improvements include greater efficiency on mobile devices, and superior video functionality.

Yet understanding HTML 5.0 is no harder than previous versions.

Individual commands are still contained within brackets, known as tags.

For instance, when it comes to text formatting, a few predetermined font sizes are represented by numbers.

The large-text subheadings in this article are explained to the browser by the presence of the phrase ‘h2’ in tag brackets.

The end of an instruction is indicated with the / symbol, so a / immediately preceding a h2 tells a web browser that it’s time to stop printing content in a large font and return to normal text size.

Tags keep each instruction distinct from the others, allowing the browser to process an action without becoming confused by anything else happening amid the lines of code.

Seeing is believing

Despite its English-language origins and relatively limited instruction palette, understanding HTML might prove challenging for anyone unfamiliar with basic programming concepts.

That’s why the advent of WYSIWYG editors has been so transformative.

In essence, these software suites do all the HTML programming for you. If you drop a block of text into a blank webpage document, the WYSIWYG editor creates the necessary code.

WYSIWYG is an abbreviation of What You See Is What You Get, and it’s enabled the development of self-publishing website tools like Wix and WordPress.

The broadbanddeals.co.uk website is constructed using WordPress, along with many of the world’s most popular websites,

Indeed, it’s been estimated that WordPress is responsible for a third of the websites currently in existence around the world.

And every one owes its existence to HTML.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!