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SGML is the substratum on which HTML was conceived and, therefore, is responsible for many of HTML's strengths and weaknesses.  SGML stands for Standard Generalized Markup Language; this is a formal system designed for building text markup languages.  It is not a markup system by itself, however; think of it as a programming language to build working programs (HTML being one of them) rather than a program by itself.

SGML is the system designed to satisfy all of these requirements, as well as many others.  SGML is strictly descriptive and contains no means to mark up presentational aspects of documents.  However, SGML can be easily interfaced to external procedural markup systems and style sheets.

It is the customizability area where SGML reveals its real power.  In fact, SGML is not a markup system by itself; it is, rather, a metasystem enabling users to create such systems for particular types of documents.  Its flexible syntax makes it possible to build markup languages (HTML being one of the examples) to match any imaginable demand.  Moreover, any single SGML document can be provided with its own "local" markup definitions fine-tuned for the particular purpose.

Just like HTML, SGML is a computer language rather than a data format.  This means that you can create SGML files manually in a text editor, although there exist software tools that facilitate the task.  A piece of software that reads and analyzes an SGML document (for example, for transformation or validation) is called an SGML parser.  A parser by itself, however, is not very useful because of the purely descriptive nature of SGML, so most often a parser is a part of a bigger document processing or browsing application.




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