Can the <small> HTML tag be allowed and properly styled?

Currently people wanting to write something small use either sup or sub which achieves a similar effect, but using it for small text is:

  • Semantically wrong
  • Too small
  • Only the most advanced users know of this "feature"

Small text is very useful in many circumstances on most (if not all) stack exchange websites. Here is a couple use cases! I put the text that would be <small> in italics instead.

  • Stack Overflow: If your C++ class has a private variable you cannot access it outside of the class or outside of friend classes/functions, that's the whole point of it!

    Note: if you really want to you can access it using pointer hacks, but the method to do that varies from compiler to compiler and it's technically undefined behavior.

  • Super User: If your computer doesn't boot try the following step: [...]

    Since you mentioned being an advanced user I skipped the most obvious reasons, such as the computer not being plugged in. But it never hurts to double check!

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    related but not a dup (unless a question can be a dupe of an answer): meta.stackexchange.com/questions/26756/… – Kip Feb 20 '10 at 3:42
  • RobW commented on an answer below, referring to the new specification of <small>. It's now referring to “the fine print” or “the small print”. That's even worse, if I understand correctly. – Arjan Apr 6 '12 at 16:09
  • Eh, I think notes or asides are very useful, if handled correctly buy the author. They help users skim the most important information, and pass over small explanatory notes (or sometimes snarky comments). – RobW Apr 6 '12 at 23:33
  • I agree notes can be useful, @Rob (except for snarky comments, which could be removed instead). But I doubt <small> is the best option. Earlier that was about presentation, not content. And today it seems the HTML5 recommendation refers to the Wikipedia definition of small print. If true, then using it doesn't feel right to me either. (Though of course it's NOT likely that some browsers/readers would suddenly add/speak some "Warning, alert, beware" for <small>, nor that company firewalls would block pages that use it...) – Arjan Apr 7 '12 at 8:18
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    That wikipedia article is odd, focusing on only the negative aspects of small print. From HTML5 Doctor: "<small> is now for side comments, which are the inline equivalent of <aside> — content which is not the main focus of the page." Side comments aren't inherently negative, whether they're legal or explanatory. There are plenty of S.O. users who use various tricks to size some text small to show that it's a side comment -- might as well give them a semantic element to do it with. – RobW Apr 8 '12 at 17:54
  • Smaller text is harder to read (and it's not the only way to denote secondary content). – Keith Thompson Jul 25 '12 at 8:08
  • @MadScientist, see also Add explicit support for citing scientific literature, though surely I'd like something more generic. – Arjan Jul 26 '12 at 20:35
  • @Arjan I'm aware of that feature request as I wrote it myself ;-) – Mad Scientist Jul 26 '12 at 20:44
  • I don't agree that sub is too small, but otherwise - +1 for sure. – einpoklum Jun 7 '17 at 9:44

Actually, I use <sup> and <sub> to get the small text effect that I love so dearly.

But real, honest-to-goodness <small> support would be nicer. For one thing, this is actually a bit too small...

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    +1 for the nice trick to get small with sup+sup – Nifle Feb 20 '10 at 10:17
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    Something that I find interesting, it only seems to work if the <sub> is inside of <sup> – Brad Gilbert Feb 20 '10 at 15:53
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    nice trick, although it looks like <sub><sup> makes the text closer to the baseline that <sup><sub>. at least on firefox. – Kip Feb 20 '10 at 21:47
  • @Kip: this is true. – Shog9 Feb 20 '10 at 22:01
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    There’s a related argument for allowing <smallcaps> to get the CSS font-variant: small-caps; to trigger. It’s much more readable (and portable) when the CSS is used instead of something that emulates it, like subscripting capitals. The x-height of small caps is the same as that of the font itself, which in the case of super/subscript is not even true. – tchrist Feb 24 '12 at 12:20
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    @Shog9, You can combine <sub><sup> with <h1>, <h2> etc to get a bigger small size. – Pacerier May 12 '14 at 8:50
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    Nearly six years later without activity, do you think maybe please we could finally have <small> instead o fugly hacks that don't work so well? – tchrist Sep 4 '16 at 20:29
  • <sub><sub><sub><sup><sup><sup>It's the smallest one!</sup></sup></sup></sub></sub></sub> – Qwertiy Mar 11 '20 at 15:27

If you can make it bigger





(to a degree)

then you certainly should

be allowed

to make it smaller

without resorting to semantically incorrect tagging and incorrect baselining!

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    More precisely: you're not able to make it bigger, you're able to use headers and such. Some day, or when accessed differently (screen readers, mobile, data dump, API), headings might be rendered totally different. Likewise, a <small> tag has little to do with content. – Arjan Jan 23 '11 at 12:12
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    @Arjan: Not so. Behold the spec: w3.org/TR/html-markup/small.html – RobW Apr 6 '12 at 15:53
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    Aha, you're right @RobW: "Although previous versions of HTML defined the small element only in presentational terms, the element has now been given the specific semantic purpose of representing those parts of documents that are often referred to as “the fine print” or “the small print”." Also: some time ago these sites switched to using HTML5. But still then: should we encourage using fine print? – Arjan Apr 6 '12 at 16:01
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    The unbroken link of @RobW's comment: w3.org/wiki/HTML/Elements/small. Or was it w3.org/TR/html5/text-level-semantics.html#the-small-element – Chris Happy Apr 26 '17 at 5:37

I sometimes abuse <sup> for the text of footnotes, which is not really needed for any other reason than to make a too long of an answer look shorter.

Hence, I'd prefer some Markdown's footnotes extension over <small>, especially as the semantics of a footnote could (one day) allow for different rendering (like tooltips, or like including links to jump back to where the footnote was referenced, Wikipedia-style, for very long answers...).

Of course, using <sup> for the footnote mark is not abusive, but for footnote text it is.

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    I'd just come to the conclusion that <small> doesn't seem to fix the issue of being semantically wrong (since <small> is a visual concept, not a semantic one) and that something along the lines of "note" or "footnote" would suit the examples much better... when I saw this answer! +1 – Richard JP Le Guen Jan 22 '11 at 4:32
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    semantically <small> is used for smallprint, not small as in size. – rob_james Nov 21 '12 at 16:55

One use case for the <small> tag would be bibliographies at the bottom of posts for the scientific sites on the network. The references shouldn't dominate the post, so making the text for them a bit smaller is quite useful.

Using the <sup> tag as a hack to make text smaller has other problems as it does affect more than the font size. It's interactions with numbered or unordered lists is problematic at best, and it leads to strange line spacing in some instances. It also needs to be applied on a per paragraph base, not just around a whole list of references, which is more work.

As for balphas concern that the tag would be misused, we already have the <sub> and <sup> tags and they are widely known, so anyone inclined to misuse small text is probably already doing it.

An example bibliography hacked together with <sup> tags follows


First of all, <sup> and <sub> do not achieve the same effect, they are small but positioned different vertically as your post has rightly demonstrated.

I'm curious what would you need a small text for? Fine prints, disclaimers, foot notes? I don't see why these can't be displayed as normal sized text.

In anycase, I totally agree that using sup/sub for the sole purpose of making the text smaller is semantically incorrect.

  • Well, it's already used a lot.. See for example meta.stackexchange.com/questions/15635/… – Thomas Bonini Feb 20 '10 at 1:37
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    Yes, I've seen many cases like that. I am totally fine with the "PS" line in normal size. I do that all the time. If your proposal is to allow small tag so people who insist on having smaller text will then use a semantically correct tag, I agree. Though I would rather they don't do it at all. :) – o.k.w Feb 20 '10 at 1:43
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    @o.k.w: You certainly can display everything in the same font size. Heck, I made do with a single font size for years... But then my old Smith Corona wore out and I moved on. Font sizes are nice when you want to emphasize something (headings) or de-emphasize something (foot notes, disclaimers, things that most readers won't care about but which need to be included for the sake of completeness). – Shog9 Feb 20 '10 at 1:54
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    smaller fonts for footnotes and disclaimers have been standard in print for a long time. (centuries probably.) it signals to the reader "hey, this is more boring than the main text, you don't need to read it unless you really care". – Kip Feb 20 '10 at 21:56
  • With that reasoning we don't need big text either, or formatting of any kind. – Thomas Bonini Feb 20 '10 at 23:46
  • I edited my question to provide use cases. – Thomas Bonini Jul 24 '10 at 1:16

I disagree. The only thing this is really used for is tongue-in-cheek emulation of the proverbial fine print, usually for something off-topic. That's okay on Meta, but discouraged on SO*, and it's used a lot less there. Allowing the "canonical" tag <small>, I fear, would lead to many more people being smart about the layout of the site. Shudder.

*Do you know SO? That's a great website, and I have even less rep there than here!

  • I edited my question to provide some use cases. Are you still against this? – Thomas Bonini Jul 24 '10 at 1:16
  • I usually use <sub> at the bottom of blockquotes for attribution... – badp Jan 24 '11 at 13:27
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    Is there a chance to revisit this decision? The <sub> and <sup> tags exist already an can be abused in this way, I don't think a <small> tag would be any more prone to abuse. I've added some arguments why the <sub> and <sup> are not ideal and a <small> tag is needed in my answer to this question (meta.stackexchange.com/a/123393/151385). – Mad Scientist Jul 27 '12 at 9:17

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