Is HTML a Programming Language?

HTML written in big text over a background of numbers and letters in white

Developed by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s, HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is one of the most widely used programming languages — a cornerstone of the World Wide Web. More often than not, you interact with it every time you jump into your web browser and surf the internet. It plays one of the most crucial roles in developing web applications, web pages, and website designs.

While its significance has never been in question, it remains the topic of the programming community’s seemingly endless debate: Is HTML a programming language or not?

It should be an easy answer, right? Well, it isn’t so simple. This isn’t a rigged dichotomy that provides a clear-cut answer. It’s difficult to come to an absolute conclusion as to whether it is or isn’t, so let’s start with what a programming language is.

What is a Programming Language?

Computer programming languages are made up of a series of letters, numbers, and symbols that allow developers to construct a detailed set of commands and instructions that a computer can understand and carry out. These languages let computers quickly and efficiently process large and complex volumes of data. Like the numerous human languages that exist, there are a vast array of programming languages that coders use to communicate with computers.

Computers are designed to think in binary, which is the 10010100011101011 language you may have seen in movies like The Matrix and AI films. Programming languages translate the strings of 1s and 0s into something humans can understand. And each programming has its distinct features, although there are many commonalities among the field.

Knowing what a programming language is will help shed light on the ensuing argument. Now that you have the short and sweet definition of a programming language, let’s talk about HTML.

What is HTML?

Since the inception of the internet, HTML has been at the heart of what makes the World Wide Web tick. It’s a coding language used to create pages that a web browser is capable of displaying. In this boundless electronic universe we live in, the majority of web pages are stored as HTML files. Websites are a collection of related HTML pages stored on a server.

As you peruse the internet, each page you find yourself visiting is requesting an HTML file stored on the server. The browser will then dissect the HTML and present it the way you expect it to.

The term “hypertext” refers to the text embedded with links that readers can click and relocate to a different section of a page or another page entirely. At the same time, “markup” is the language that uses tags or plain text with special markings to define the sections of a page. If you’re curious as to what it looks like, right-click and sift through the language in the pop-up box on the right of the page.

HTML does not work alone. Along with HTML, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is another core technology for building web pages. HTML and CSS make up two of the most important aspects of what you see on a webpage. Whereas HTML is responsible for text and pictures, CSS sets the visual properties such as colors, layout, and format.

So, if HTML plays a role in dictating how we see a webpage, wouldn’t that mean it’s a programming language?

Let’s dig deeper.

Declarative Language

You’ll often hear those arguing against including HTML as a coding language point to the fact that HTML is a declarative language. A declarative language consists of instructing a program on what should exist on a page, instead of telling it how to do it.

When you use HTML, you’re telling a computer that your goal is to see the visuals on a web page, but you leave it to a programming language like Javascript or Python to determine how it produces those visuals.

The following is a sample HTML code.

<h1>This is the headline within this section.</h1>
<p>This is a paragraph within this section.</p>

Essentially, the above HTML tells the browser that this webpage should have a section with a header and a paragraph. There isn’t any sort of computation (the arithmetic used to write code that makes a computer operate), which is a criterion for programming languages. HTML declares what should be on a page — not necessarily what it should do.

Markup Language

HTML is a markup language. Markup languages are special markings interspersed with plain text, which, if removed or ignored, render the plain text in its entirety. They’re ideal for aspiring techies looking to first get their feet wet in the world of coding.

HTML “marks up” online data with HTML tags, which interprets the data and details its purpose on the webpage. From there, the web browser reads the HTML and tells it specifics such as which pieces are headers, paragraphs, links, etc. Data is described in HTML and displayed by the browser as a result of the description.

HTML vs. Programming Languages

A programming language must meet specific criteria, and many people believe that Hypertext Markup Language is not a programming language. Others view it as a programming language in a broader sense. Here are a few bullet points that show the differences between HTML and programming languages like JavaScript and Python.

  • Programming languages involve logical and arithmetic operations along with several algorithms. Markup languages just include HTML tags to define the elements of a web page.
  • By using various algorithms, programming languages can be used to program a machine or computer. The purpose of markup languages is to define, process, or style the text, so it can be presented more effectively.
  • As compared to programming languages, markup languages are more human-readable.

So, is HTML a programming language? By all intents and purposes, HTML is not a programming language. Is HTML paramount to the online user experience? Yes. That is a clear-cut answer.

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