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XML Schema: XPath and Xpointer

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Learn the basics about XPath and XPointer, and learn how to locate elements that represent schema components.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

The XPath Recommendation describes a language for specifying sets of elements in an XML document. The XPath Recommendation provides the foundation for the XPointer Recommendation, XML Pointer Language (XPointer), which extends the XPath language to allow for specifying any part of an XML document. XPointers specifically support incorporating fragment identifiers into URI references. The XPointer Recommendation can be found at http://www.w3.org/TR/xptr/.

XML schemas use a subset of the XPath location paths for identity constraints. The XPaths specified by identity constraints (see Chapter 13) serve to locate nodes (specifically elements and attributes) within a corresponding XML instance. An XML validator examines the values of these elements and attributes to ensure uniqueness or referential integrity.

An XPointer provides the location of an entire XML schema document or merely a set of schema components. An XML validator nominally assembles an entire XML schema from a collection of XML schema documents. In fact, any XML schema document may assemble individual components from a variety of XML documents (although they do not have to be XML schema documents) by using XPointers. Specifically, an XPointer can point to a set of schema components embedded in a non-schema XML document.

This chapter is not a comprehensive tutorial on XPath or XPointer. The respective Recommendations provide lots of detail and many examples. The book presents a more complete XPath tutorial—restricted to XPath usage in identity constraints—in Chapter 13. Section 4.2 presents a number of representative examples that demonstrate locating elements that represent schema components.

4.1 XPath

Fundamentally, an XPath is an expression. Evaluating an XPath expression results in one of the following:

  • A node set
  • A Boolean
  • A floating-point number
  • A string of Unicode characters

The scope of XPath is far more extensive than the constructs covered in this section. For example, many constructs are designed to support XSLT. This section covers only those portions of XPath pertinent to XML schemas. Specifically, identity constraints require the resultant node set to contain only elements or attributes. Fragment identifiers (see Section 4.2) further restrict the resultant node set to contain only elements. Therefore, the Boolean, floating-point number, and string values are mostly not relevant in the context of XML schemas (see Section 4.1.4 for a discussion of the exceptions).

Because the remainder of this chapter primarily discusses node set results, subsequent discussion focuses on the subset of an expression known as a location path. A location path always identifies a node set.

4.1.1 XPath Location Paths

Location paths nominally provide the grammar for typical XPath expressions for XML schemas. In an XML schema, all location paths are either relative to an enclosing component (for identity constraints) or relative to an entire XML document (for locating schema components). One of the general features of a location path is the ability to navigate along a number of axes. An axis specifies a direction of movement in the node tree. For example, you might specify a child node, an attribute node, an ancestor node, or a descendant node.

The XPath Recommendation defines 13 axes. An identity constraint is limited to containing only the axes child, attribute, and descendant-or-self. Furthermore, an identity constraint can only use the shortcut notation for these axes. Table 4.1 portrays these shortcuts (Table 4.3 contains the entire list of axes).

One schema document can locate another (or even parts of another) with an XPointer. An XPointer may specify any of the 13 axes in a predicate (see Sections 4.1.2 and 4.2 for more detail). Although technically feasible, not all the axes are particularly valuable with respect to schema document locations. Table 4.3 illuminates the axes with dubious merit.

4.1.2 Predicates

Predicates are very powerful, but slightly confusing when first encountered. A predicate is strictly a filter. A predicate filters out desired nodes from a node set.


In an XML schema, an XPath expression always results in a node set. An expression with a predicate also results in a node set. Specifically, an expression with a predicate results in a subset of the node set that corresponds to the same expression without the predicate.

The easiest way to demonstrate a predicate is to discuss two similar expressions along multiple axes. For demonstration purposes, consider a catalog consisting of several parts:

   <partNumber SKU="S1234">P1234</partNumber>
   <partNumber SKU="Sabcd">Pabcd</partNumber>

The ensuing example returns a node set that contains all partNumber elements in a document:


The corresponding node set contains the partNumber elements whose values are 'P1234', 'P2222', and 'Pabcd'.

An addition to the location path along an attribute axis results in a node set that contains all SKU attributes of partNumber elements:


The corresponding node set contains the SKU attributes whose values are 'S1234' and 'Sabcd'.

The predicate in the next example, on the other hand, results in a subset of the //partNumber node set. In particular, the subsequent example returns partNumber elements that have SKU attributes, not the attributes as in the previous example.


The corresponding node set contains the partNumber elements whose values are 'P1234' and 'Pabcd'. The partNumber element whose value is 'P2222' is not included, because this element has no SKU attribute.

An XPath expression, in general, can return any node set, a Boolean value, a string, or a floating-point number. In an XML schema, the results of an XPath expression (in an identity constraint), as well as the results of an XPointer expression (in a schemaLocation attribute value), must result in a node set. Because of this, this chapter does not go into detail describing the other result types. However, a predicate can refine a node set in an XPointer expression. Therefore, Table 4.4, which appears later in this chapter, provides a few examples of XPointers that contain predicates that return values that are not node sets. Because very few schemas contain XPointers, and even fewer contain complex XPointers, this chapter does not provide a comprehensive tutorial on predicates.


The Schema Recommendation does not support the use of predicates within identity constraints. Within an XML schema, predicates are valid only as part of an XPointer expression, which can be used only in conjunction with schema document (and part-of-document) locations.

4.1.3 Node IDs

An XPath expression may include any number of "functions" that either extract information from an XML document or help to restrict the resultant node set (via a predicate). Identity constraints may not contain functions. In practice, XPath pointers to (parts of) schema documents rarely contain functions. Therefore, this chapter does not include a tutorial on the XPath functions or the corresponding return types. There is one function, however, supported—and even promoted by the XPointer Recommendation—in an XPointer location path expression: the id function.

The XPath id function is a great way to locate a specific node, assuming that a node specifies an ID. Note that the XPointer Recommendation surmises that IDs are "most likely to survive document change." The thought is that the structure of the XML document might change: Elements might "move" relative to one another. Consequently, a location path may no longer find the desired element, whereas the ID of the node is much more likely to be stable.


The id function is part of the XPath Recommendation, which is why the discussion about this function appears in Section 4.1. With respect to XML schemas, however, an XPointer (in a schemaLocation value) is the only expression that can access this function. The id function cannot express any part of an identity constraint.

To demonstrate the use of the id function, the following URI locates the catalogEntryDescriptionType complex type (whose ID is 'catalogEntryDescriptionType.catalog.cType') in the thematic catalog schema: http://www.XMLSchemaReference.com/theme/catalog.xsd#xpointer (id("catalogEntryDescriptionType.catalog.cType"))

To encourage the use of IDs, the XPointer Recommendation permits an XPointer to consist of a shortcut, which is just the bare name of the ID:


4.1.4 Using XPath with Identity Constraints

An identity constraint may reference only three of the axes specified by the XPath Recommendation: child, attribute, and descendant-or-self. Furthermore, an identity constraint may refer to these axes only via a shortcut. Table 4.1 lists all the shortcuts available (the three axes and a wildcard) in an identity constraint.

Table 4.2 provides a few examples that demonstrate how to locate elements in an XML document. Chapter 13, "Identity Constraints," provides a much more complete discussion.

Listing 13.3 covers the complete grammar for location paths, as pertains to identity constraints. Likewise, Table 13.2 provides a number of detailed XPath examples.

TABLE 4.1 Identity Constraint Shortcuts




(No axis following '/')

Implied child axis




Selects a b that is a subelement of an a, which is a subelement of the document root.


attribute axis




The b attribute of the a subelement element of the current node.


descendant-or-self axis




Any b element that is a descendant of a.


A wildcard representing all immediate subelements


Any b that is a subelement of any immediate subelement of a.

TABLE 4.2 Identity Constraint Examples




This expression locates all bulkID elements along the descendant-or-self axis of the root element. Therefore, this locates all bulkID elements in the entire document.


The expression locates all description elements along the child axis of the previous example. Therefore, this locates all description elements that are immediate descendants of any bulkID element.


This expression locates all partNumber elements that are direct descendants of any (hence the '*') direct descendant of catalog. Note that each element reference is along the child axis.


This expression locates all partNumber elements that are descendants (but not necessarily immediate descendants) of catalog.


This expression selects all employeeAuthorization attributes of any descendant of the catalog element.

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