Xml Programming Paradigms (part Three)
Declarative Programming with XML Stylesheet Language Transformations

David Mertz, Ph.D.
Gnosis Software, Inc. http://gnosis.cx/publish/
December 2001

This series looks at several distinct conceptual models that exist for manipulation of XML documents. XML Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT) is a declarative approach to the transformation of XML documents. We look at why a declarative description of document tranformations is desirable? Why use an XML dialect, as XSLT does, to describe the transformations? What libaries, modules and tools perform XSLT? Source code examples of XSLT stylesheets and how they are used to produce output documents are also contained in this article.

About This Series

As XML has developed into a widely used data format, a number of programming models have arisen for manipulating XML documents. Some of these models--or "paradigms"--have been enshrined as standards, while others remain only informally specified (but equally widely used nonetheless). In a general way, the several models available for manipulating XML documents closely mirror the underlying approaches and techniques that programmers in different traditions bring to the task of working with XML. It is worth noticing that "models" are at a higher level of abstraction than a particular programming language; most of the models discussed in this series are associated with APIs that have been implemented in multiple programming languages.

In part, the richness of available XML programming models simply allows programmers and projects to work in the ways that are most comfortable and familiar to them. In many ways, there is overlap--at least in achievable outcomes--between all the XML programming models. However, different models also carry with them specific pros and cons in the context of XML manipulation; and these might urge the use of particular models for particular projects. This series of five articles aims to provide readers with an overview of the costs, benefits, and motivations for all of the major approaches to programmatic manipulation of XML documents (manipulation here, should be understood also to mean "using XML to drive or communicate other application processes").

This article addresses extensible stylesheet language transformations (XSLT), version 1.0 of which is a W3C Recommendation, and vesion 2.0 of which is currently a W3C Working Draft. In contrast to object-oriented and event-driven paradigms discussed in earlier installments, XSLT brings a declarative programming style to transformations of XML documents. The first article, Part 1, discussed the OOP-style Document Object Model (DOM), which is a W3C Recommendation. Part 2 discussed the Simple API for XML (SAX) and similar event-driven and procedural styles of XML programming. In Part 4, we will see the application of full-fledged Functional Programming (FP) techniques to XML manipulation--these in some ways unify the earlier models (but are less commonly used). The final installment, Part 5, will look briefly at a number of tools and techniques that did not quite fit into the previous discussion, but that readers would do well to be aware of.

Xslt's Conceptual Framework

XSLT lives at a somewhat odd level in the world of program data and programming languages. An XSLT "program" is itself a valid XML document, which looks a bit data-like. However, most any programming language could treat its own source files as data, so this circularity does not necessarily amount ot all that much. In a more significant way, XSLT files are generally thought of more as "instructions" or "configurations" than as real programs. For example, Steven Holzner writes in Inside XSLT that:

XSLT can be read by XSLT processors, which work on XML documents for you--all you have to do is create an XSLT stylesheet that specifies that rules you want to apply to transform one document into another. No programming is needed ...

In a sense, I think Holzner is plainly wrong. Writing an XSLT is programming of a certain sort. But the distinctions between "programs" and "rule files" is gradual, the line of Python programming that reads:


Looks a lot like the sendmail.cf configuration line that reads:

O LogLevel=9

Or the .ncftp configuration line:


Or even the LaTeX instruction:


When figuring out which such similar lines to include for a given purpose, the distinction about "how complex" the determination is more germane to the issue of whether it is "programming" than is a point about whether the underlying "language" is Turing-complete, merely a pushdown automaton, or whatever (and many readers probably have no immediate intuition or knowledge about the above examples).

What to do and how to do it

It turns out that from a computer-science perspective, XSLT is a "complete" programming language. Dimitre Novatchev ([email protected]) has written an as-yet-unpublished article that I recently reviewed which shows that some fully general functional programming techniques can be implemented in XSLT using a "hack" on namespaces in XSLT.

Whatever might be technically possible, however, XSLT is not well suited for general programming. Moreover, in its predominant everyday usage, Holzner correctly characterizes XSLT. XSLT is a way of describing the way you would like an XML document to be processed, it is not an application program that does the processing. The actual mechanics of using XSLT reinforce the common conception. An actual transformation is peformed either from a command-line, or from a function call (from many programming languages). In either case, the XML document to be processed and the XSLT stylesheet are the two "input" elements to the actual processing. For example:

% xsltproc mystyle.xslt mydoc.xml > output.xml

Or within an application program (from C/C++ in the example):

out = xsltApplyStylesheet(mystyle, mydoc, parms);

As background to understanding what XSLT does, it is important to understand the difference between declarative and imperative programming. The most commonly used programming languages--including those normally used with DOM or SAX--are predominantly imperative in style. In C, C++, Java, Python, Perl, TCL, Visual Basic, Delphi, shell script and most other languages, a computer program basically lists a temporal collection of steps that the programmer wants the computer to take. Branching, looping, and subroutine calling mean that the program does not usually start at the first line, end at the last line, and visit each line between in order. But each actual run of an imperative program consists of actions that are peformed for their side-effects--e.g. storing a value to a mutable variable or causing I/O to occur.

A SAX application is an obvious imperative system. It says--in short--respond to this tag, respond to that tag, then respond to yet another tag, until some termination is reached. But a DOM application is equally imperative. An early step is usually "build the DOM" tree; but after that a series of actions like moving and creating nodes occurpy the application. Often near the end, a modified DOM tree is written back to XML.

Declarative languages

In contrast to the most used imperative programming language, there also exists a number of declarative programming languages. These are often divided into logical and functional variants; Prolog and Mercury are in the former category, while Haskell, ML, Clean, Lisp, Scheme and others are in the latter camp. XSLT is also clearly and strongly in the declarative family of programming languages (it is a bit too limited, however, to be fully either "functional" or "logical"). Moreover, even "little languages" like specialized configuration files can be considered declarative also. Depending on just how limited they are, such configuration files may or may not be programming languages, but they are declarative either way.

Declarative programming has much more in common with mathematics than does traditional imperative programming (which is closer to certain engineering or mechanical practices). Consider a set of linear equations like the below:

10x + 5y -  7z + 1 = 0
17x + 5y - 10z + 3 = 0
 5x - 4y +  3z - 6 = 0

One "declares" a certain collection of relations must obtain. There is no temporal order in these declarations. And no "assignment" is really made to variables in this mathematical sense.

In order to solve these equations with a computer, ultimately the CPU will carry out some series of instructions in linear temporal order. But a declarative programmer does not want or need to worry about what the CPU actually does. She merely writes down statments of facts that make up the specification. Sometimes those statments involve intermediate placeholders and functions (in the mathematical sense of "function"), but these intermediaries are themselves unordered and non-assigning.

Rather than a set of mathematical relations, what an XSLT stylesheet declares is simply what occurs in the output of a stylesheet application. How it gets there is not for a programmer/developer to worry about. The XSLT creator just indicates what goes in the output. In this sense an XSLT stylesheet is a sort of template for a result.

Xslt At Work

To get a sense of what XSLT does, it is best to look at some real-world examples. What is presented here will not explore the full richness of the XSLT tag set, but it will give a feel for the most important tags.

I have a document that I have marked up in a popular XML dialect called DocBook, which is well suited to academic books--the example document is one chapter of a larger work, and therefore has a <chapter> element as its root. We will use that for some below examples of XSLT stylesheets that templatize an HTML version of a DocBook XML document. That is, the processing we are interested in for the example is transforming a DocBook dialect XML document into an HTML output format. While this type of application is common, one could equally well create an XML or cutom-format output from the processing.

A trivial stylesheet

The most important tag in XSLT stylesheets is probably <xsl:apply-templates>. Generally, every template will include this tag somewhere in its body. The purpose of this tag is to allow a developer to declare that "whenever such-and-such is encountered in the input, put the following in the output":

Minimal Chapter XSLT Document (minimal.xls)
<xsl:stylesheet version="1.0"
  <xsl:output method="html" indent="yes" encoding="UTF-8"/>
  <xsl:template match="chapter">
    ----- Start of Chapter -----
  <xsl:template match="*">
    ##### Unmatched Element in Source #####

When we run an XSLT processor using this stylesheet and a DocBook chapter, we get something like:

----- Start of Chapter -----
##### Unmatched Element in Source #####
##### Unmatched Element in Source #####
##### Unmatched Element in Source #####

This output is not all that useful, but it lets us see what the stylesheet is doing. The root element of a chapter is the <chapter> element. That matches, and announces the chapter starts. Within the <chapter> element various children occur, each such child is called something other than chapter, and so will pass matching to the "*" template.

There is one other important XSLT tag to notice in the minimal.xls example. The <xsl:apply-template/> element is used when we want to indicate something additional is contained in the output which needs to be determined based on the particular input XML document. For example, when a <chapter> element is encountered, we want to write some literal characters in the output, but we also want to let the content of the input <chapter> element trigger other template elements. On the other hand, for the generic match="*" pattern in the above example, we output some characters, but do not look for anything else to do.

A semi-useful stylesheet

Now for something that produces some real HTML output when processed:

Valid HTML Outputter XSLT Document
<xsl:stylesheet version="1.0"
  <xsl:output method="html" indent="yes" encoding="UTF-8"/>
  <xsl:template match="chapter">
        <xsl:value-of select="title"/>
  <xsl:template match="chapter/title">
  <xsl:template match="para">
  <xsl:template match="*">
    ##### Unmatched Element in Source #####

This HTML-outputter shows some realistic features of an XSLT stylesheet. Inside the chapter match template, we lay out the HTML document we want to produce. There is little special about the XHTML tags inside the template match; any text we put there will appear in the output (but we cannot include tags that are not in the xsl or default XHTML namespace). Within the HTML <title> element, we use the <xsl:value-of> instruction to insert the <title> subelement required inside a <chapter> in DocBook. In the HTML <body> element, we pass control on to other templates (presumably quite a few for all of DocBook; but most are not yet included in the example).

The next template after chapter is chapter/title. This means to match a <title> element, but only if it occurs directly inside a <chapter>. If we had wanted we could have simply matched title and thereby specified the output format of every <title> element in the source document. But we eventually want to format chapter titles differently from <sect1> titles, <sect2> titles, and so on. We perform a general match with para in the example (but it never actually matches, because <para> can only occur inside tags we have not yet matched). For good measure, we still match "*" which lets us see that our stylesheet is not complete when we examine its output.

Rounding out our XSLT stylesheet

So far we have declared enough about our desired output format to get some minimal HTML markup. But most of our input XML document is still ignored. This might be what is desired for certain purposes, but our goal here is to come up with a way of formatting as HTML most or all of the DocBook original. The Resources section has links to some additional XSLT stylesheets that complete the specification. But conceptually, the full specification looks like an mere elaboration of the basic stylesheet.

There is one particular XSLT construct worth mentioning here still. We have seen that the <xsl:apply-templates/> are able to "descend" into elements of an input XML document. This descent is basically just a form of recursion--a technique that should be familiar to all programmers. Matching templates by descent is not the only trick XSLT can do, however. You can also do conditional outputting, sorting, pull out source attributes, and looping over children. For this column, let us look at looping:

XSLT template for looping over subelements
<xsl:template match="simplelist">
    <xsl:for-each select="member">

Rather than descend to every subelement in a simplelist, we just assume subelements are all <member> elements. The <xsl:for-each> works much like a nested template, and also much like a programming-language loop construct. The contents of the <xsl:for-each> element will go to the output for every subelement that matches the select attribute. Within the loop, the contents of the current <member> element become the active node that descends down to the <xsl:apply-templates/> tag we find inside the loop. That is, each thing in the list might have further markup inside it, and we pass formatting of those elements to their appropriate templates (for text nodes, they are just ouput in literal form).

The Good And The Bad Of Xslt

Having presented a glimpse of XSLT in action, I should come clean with my own opinion. I really do not like XSLT very much, despite its widespread popularity. At heart, I do not think there is anything that XSLT does better than alternatives, and would therefore be unlikely to choose this technology in a situation where I had design control. I'll try to describe why. But understand in my explanation, that the author is in a very distinct minority; a large number--maybe a majority--of developers seem enormously enthused by XSLT.

One can understand the character of XSLT from the above few examples. Each XSLT element declares something about what goes in the output, and contains a "picture" of that output. At runtime, the implementing XSLT utility will carry out the description in one element, then that in another, but the declarations may occur in any order in the XSLT file itself. The flow is driven entirely by the content and structure of the source XML document. All this is very different from imperative programming, like SAX or DOM.

The declarative character of XSLT is--to my mind--a very strong point for it. Being able to simply state what needs to be in the output of a transformation is less error prone--and in principle easier--than writing a step-by-step guide for how the output is generated. But this good point of XSLT is limited. One can declare certain things with XSLT, but there are many other areas where the limitations of XSLT fail to be as general as a process requires. In these circumstances, the functional programming approaches that the next installment will discuss are simply more powerful and general. To use XSLT is to jump into a project hoping that requirements will not evolve in such a way as to make the tool useless. Sometimes such a hope turns out fine; but why take on the risk to start with if it is not necessary? By starting down an XSLT path, one risks encountering unpleasant dead ends.

An explanation of just where XSLT falls short needs to wait for the next installment on functional programming (FP) techniques for XML. But it suffices to note here that those FP tools are just as declarative as XSLT. The limitations might be worth incurring and/or risking if XSLT was itself a simple programming language. But it really is not--certainly not the way the configuration file examples given above are. To work with XSLT, one still needs to learn a large number of tags and rules, and go through quite a bit of design and debugging process. Basically, an XSLT project is a programming project, with all the complexity that entails. Accepting limitations are not rewarded with gaining simplicity.

One obvious area of complexity in XSLT is its syntax. Every XSLT document is a well-formed XML document (and more-or-less valid, but some namespace issues exist between XSLT versions). Many developers apparently feel that an advantage occurs by making XSLT "programs" instances of the same XML markup style that they operate upon. The thought here is that the same validation and transformation tools used for primrary XML documents can in turn be used for XSLT stylesheets too.

In practice, I have never really encountered significant programmatic manipulation of XSLT stylesheets--generally XSLT, like programming language source files, are written and modified by human beings not by automated processes. As such, the difficulty of an XML syntax simply gets in the way of writing and reading the stylesheets. Moreover, every programming language already has at least one perfectly good "program validator"--it is called a compiler or interpreter. By writing an XML processing application in a "regular" programming language, one automatically gets the ability to validate the source code for syntactic correctness. XSLT is not special in this advantage.

In terms of efficiency, XSLT has no huge virtue. Most XSLT implementations seem to be built on top of a DOM parser. Therefore, all the overhead of DOM parsing applies to XSLT (i.e. in-memory image of the entire XML document). Even if not DOM-based, and XSLT utility or library is almost required to work on an image of an entire XML file. XSLT has no disadvantage over DOM here, nor over most of the FP techniques we will look at later; but XSLT lacks the potential for memory efficiency that SAX offers. At any rate, the cumbersome aspects of writing XSLT are not balanced by any great speed of execution.


The XSL Transformations (XSLT) Version 1.0 W3C Recommendation can be found at:


The XSL Transformations (XSLT) Version 2.0 W3C Working Draft can be found at:


A good dead-tree introduction to XSLT can be found in Steven Holzner's Inside XSLT, New Riders, 2001. In the main text I use Holzner as an illustration of common attitudes and beliefs about XSLT.

The XSLT examples here, and some of the explanation of them, are based on an earlier article for IBM developerWorks. Some greater details on XSLT usage specifics can be found in that article:


The XSLT examples used in this article, as well as various elaborations of them can be found at: