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This chapter is from the book

Differences Between DTDs and Schema

The critical difference between DTDs and XML Schema is that XML Schema utilize an XML-based syntax, whereas DTDs have a unique syntax held over from SGML DTDs. Although DTDs are often criticized because of this need to learn a new syntax, the syntax itself is quite terse. The opposite is true for XML Schema, which are verbose, but also make use of tags and XML so that authors of XML should find the syntax of XML Schema less intimidating.

The goal of DTDs was to retain a level of compatibility with SGML for applications that might want to convert SGML DTDs into XML DTDs. However, in keeping with one of the goals of XML, "terseness in XML markup is of minimal importance," there is no real concern with keeping the syntax brief.


The documentation provided by the W3C related to the Working Groups and Recommendations can be extremely useful in understanding the design philosophy and goals of a technology. If you are considering development work with a new technology, you should consult the W3C documentation to learn about the appropriate uses for the technology and to keep up with changes in a working draft or updates to a published Recommendation.

However, you might care if you are dealing with a complex Schema. Schema can become long rather quickly. In general, DTDs tend to be shorter, since the syntax is more compact—not necessarily any less convoluted, but usually shorter.

So what are some of the other differences which might be especially important when we are converting a DTD? Let's take a look.


The most significant difference between DTDs and XML Schema is the capability to create and use datatypes in Schema in conjunction with element and attribute declarations. In fact, it's such an important difference that one half of the XML Schema Recommendation is devoted to datatyping and XML Schema. We cover datatypes in detail in Part III of this book, "XML Schema Datatypes."

It's very easy to see how datatypes can be useful in Schema design. Take, for example, a ZIP code element. Using a DTD, we would only be able to specify that a <zip> element was text. That would mean that someone could enter W321GWG@(!#@ as a ZIP code, and it would still be considered valid. However, if we are following the U.S. ZIP Code format, this is obviously not valid. Using XML Schema, we could actually create a datatype for ZIP codes using regular expressions (simply a pattern that matches a specific set of strings) that would limit the zip element to the standard 5-digit ZIP code. We could also create a datatype to deal with ZIP+4 if we wanted. For example:

<xs:simpleType name="zip">
 <xs:restriction base="xs:string">
 <xs:pattern value="[0-9]{5}(\-)?([0-9]{4})?"/>

makes use of a regular expression (in the pattern value) to see if the string matches the ZIP+4 format. We'll talk more about both datatypes and regular expressions in Chapter 12, "Representing and Modeling Data."

The ability to get that specific with the datatypes of the content for our elements and attributes is a very powerful aspect of XML Schema.

Occurrence Constraints

Another area where DTDs and Schema differ significantly is with occurrence constraints. If you recall from our previous examples in Chapter 2, "Schema Structure" (or your own work with DTDs), there are three symbols that you can use to limit the number of occurrences of an element: *, + and ?.

The * allows you to specify that an element may occur any number of times, the + signifies that an element may occur one or more times, and ? limits the element occurrence to zero or one. So, let's say we have an element called carton, which can contain egg elements. Table 3.1 shows how we might use the DTD occurrence operators to limit the number of times the elements may appear in an XML document.

Table 3.1 Limiting Element Occurrences in a DTD

DTD Syntax


<!ELEMENT carton (egg*)>

carton could contain any number of eggs.

<!ELEMENT carton (egg+)>

carton must contain at least one egg, but there is no limit to the maximum number of eggs.

<!ELEMENT carton (egg?)>

carton does not have to contain any eggs, but may contain one.

<!ELEMENT carton (egg)>

carton may contain one, and only one egg.

As you can see, these options are a little limited. For example, how often do you buy a carton of one egg? And are you aware of any cartons that can hold an infinite number of eggs? What if you wanted to define a carton that could hold exactly a half-dozen eggs? You could do that; the declaration would look like this:

<!ELEMENT carton (egg, egg, egg, egg, egg, egg)>

What if you wanted to be more flexible, and say that carton had a minimum of a half-dozen eggs, but it could store up to a dozen? That could be done in a DTD too, but it's ugly looking:

<!ELEMENT carton (egg, egg, egg, egg, egg, egg, egg?, egg?, egg?, egg?, egg?, egg?)>

That declaration specifies that there are six egg elements which occur once and only once, and then six more egg elements which may occur once, but don't have to. The result is that we must have 6 egg elements in our carton but we can have up to 12.

As you can see, the definitions for accomplishing this level of granularity are really ugly. Schema allow a much cleaner mechanism for occurrence restraints, the minOccurs and maxOccurs attributes, which allow you to specify the minimum and maximum number of occurrences of an element:

<xs:element name="carton">
   <xs:element name="egg" type="xs:string"
      minOccurs="6" maxOccurs="12" />

This is a much cleaner mechanism for defining elements which have specific occurrence constraints. If you need this type of control over the elements in your schema, DTDs fall short. This is the up side of verbosity in XML Schema: The added descriptiveness allows Schema to be more human-readable.


An enumeration is simply a list of values. Surfing the Web, you encounter enumerations every time you come across a pull-down menu: The menu presents you with a predefined list of choices. Those choices, or enumerations, can be defined in a DTD for a list of attributes.

So, let's say we had a <shirt> element, and we wanted to be able to define a size attribute for the shirt, which allowed users to choose a size: small, medium, or large. Our DTD would look like this:

<!ELEMENT item (shirt)>
<!ELEMENT shirt (#PCDATA)>
<!ATTLIST shirt
    size_value (small | medium | large)>

That would allow us to create an XML document that looked like this:

<shirt size="medium">Cotton</shirt>

We can also use a Schema to describe the same thing, an attribute called size that is an enumeration:

<xs:simpleType name="size_value">
 <xs:restriction base="xs:string">
  <xs:enumeration value="small"/>
  <xs:enumeration value="medium"/>
  <xs:enumeration value="large"/>
<xs:element name="shirt" type="xs:string">
 <xs:attribute name="size" type="size_value"/>

But what if we wanted size to be an element? We can't do that with a DTD. DTDs do not provide for enumerations in an element's text content. However, because of datatypes with Schema, when we declared the enumeration in the preceding example, we actually created a simpleType called size_values which we can now use with an element:

<xs:element name="size" type="size_value">

That would allow us to use the following XML:


This kind of flexibility is directly related to datatypes, but it is still one way in which XML Schema can be more flexible than DTDs.

When You Should Use a DTD

Just because the W3C built it does not mean you have to use it. There are times when it will be perfectly reasonable to stick with the DTD you are currently using. Obviously, if your DTD is functional and you don't have any need to extend it, then chances are you might be better off leaving well enough alone. But let's say that you are developing a schema from scratch. When should you use a DTD instead of an XML Schema? Here are a few examples.

When Brevity Matters

We mentioned before that DTDs tend to be more concise than XML Schema. XML in general is not designed for brevity; it is a verbose language, which is part of what helps make it more human-readable. So, if brevity is important, you might want to see if you can accomplish your goals with a DTD instead of a Schema. Need proof? Take a look at an example of a DTD and a Schema, side-by-side, which both define the same thing, a schema for a TV Listing.

The XML Document we are defining the schema for looks like this:

<description>A PBS news/documentary</description>
<date>April 1, 2004</date>
<time>10pm EST</time>

This is a very simple XML document. The root element is the <listing> element, which can contain multiple <show> elements, and the show must contain one each of the title, cast, rating, description, date, and time elements. Here is the DTD which would describe our TV Listing document:

<!ELEMENT listing (show*)>
<!ELEMENT show (title, cast, rating, description, date, time)>
<!ELEMENT title (#PCDATA)>
<!ELEMENT rating (#PCDATA)>
<!ELEMENT description (#PCDATA)>

Because this example does not make use of any complex content models or even attributes, this is as straightforward as DTDs get. Let's take a look at the Schema that describes the exact same document:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<schema xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema">

<element name="listing">
 <element name="show" maxOccurs="unbounded">
  <element name="title" type="string"/>
  <element name="cast" type="string"/>
  <element name="rating" type="string"/>
  <element name="description" type="string"/>
  <element name="date" type="string"/>
  <element name="time" type="string"/>


The Schema takes 22 lines of code to accomplish what the DTD accomplishes in 8 lines. Just comparing the two examples side-by-side shows that Schema are verbose, so if brevity is important to your needs, consider a DTD.

When You Want Users to Be Able to Override Definitions Easily

XML Schema use namespaces. In the previous chapter you saw how XML Schema use namespaces. Schema have one namespace declared for the Schema elements themselves (such as <element>) and another targetNamespace declared for the elements you are defining. With all of these namespaces floating about, it is easy to confuse them, or to create a namespace collision: a situation where there are conflicting references to a namespace. Practically speaking, that means that redefining elements using Schema can be complicated.

When would you want to redefine an element? Well, for example, if we defined an address element in an XML Schema, a user in the U.S. might want to redefine the element to conform to the U.S. address format, which includes a ZIP code:

John Doe
1023 Easy Street
New York, NY 10002

while a user in the U.K. won't use ZIP codes, but instead would use postal codes:

John Doe
2312 Kingsbury Way
3SW 1N2

With DTDs, redefining or overriding declarations can be pretty easy. It can be done within an external DTD using parameter entities, or it can be done in an internal DTD, contained within the DOCTYPE literal in an XML document. For example, the DOCTYPE declaration used to link an XML document to the DTD can also contain element declarations, attribute declarations, and so on, internally as well. If those internal DTD declarations are in conflict with the declarations in the external DTD, then the internal declarations are used.

Having both an internal DTD (contained in the XML document) and an external DTD (referenced in the document) makes it very easy to manipulate the DTD by extending or overriding the declarations. Of course, XML Schema have methods to import or include other XML Schema; however, doing so is not necessarily trivial, and in fact can be quite complex because of namespace issues that might arise from having two elements with the same name, and keeping track of the various namespaces elements belong to. So if you are using a base schema, but have the need to easily override or extend that schema, a DTD might be a better choice than XML Schema.

When You Have Mostly Text Documents

Everyone talks about the power of XML Schema, especially the power of datatypes. And it is true that datatypes offer a high degree of flexibility and power that was not possible before with DTDs. But not everyone needs that kind of flexibility and power. What if your needs center around large-scale documents which are mostly (if not entirely) text?

Some examples might include manuals, documentation, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. While these might have some elements used for indexing and cross-referencing, the majority of the elements might simply contain large blocks of text.

That's a perfect example of the type of document which might not benefit from an XML Schema. In fact, those types of documents might even benefit from DTD usage, since there are fewer differences between an XML and SGML DTD, and many document solutions were originally built around SGML, making it faster and easier to port an SGML DTD into and XML DTD than into an XML Schema.

If your uses for XML are mostly large blocks of text, then you might want to just stick with DTDs. Unless there is a compelling Schema feature which is essential to your document needs, chances are a DTD will satisfy your schema requirements adequately, and quite possibly more efficiently.

If Your Tools Don't Support Schema

You spend six months researching, designing, and writing the perfect XML Schema. It is a thing of beauty, designed to anticipate your every data need. It is compatible with your database Schema and it describes your XML document perfectly. It allows you to do things you could have never done with a DTD, and even though you don't need that functionality now, your foresight will pay off tenfold in the future. You are proud of your work.

And then you discover from your Web department that the parser it has chosen to use for implementing XML in conjunction with your Web site doesn't support XML Schema.

XML Schema are a fairly new technology. If the tools you rely upon everyday in order to be productive don't support XML Schema, then you might just have to stick to DTDs for a while. That doesn't mean you can't think about XML Schema, or learn how you might use them in the future. But in the meantime, if your software doesn't support XML Schema, it won't do you much good to use them.

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