Examining XSLT

19th July 2005 · Last updated: 5th October 2016

I'm learning XSLT, a series of languages to process XML. Here's some of what I've picked up so far. Exciting stuff.


  • Has over 100 built-in functions.
  • Can add/remove elements
  • Can rearrange/sort elements
  • Can do tests on a document and decide which elements to display based on the result
  • Can filter data based on criteria (such as equals, greater than etc)
  • Client-side support is limited to IE6 and Mozilla/Firefox at present
  • IE5 implemented it before the specs were written, so isn't fully W3C compliant
  • Server-side works for all browsers (they just see the HTML produced at the end of it)
  • PHP4 can be used to program in XSL, but not in the default installation, unlike PHP5
  • ASP can be used if you're on a Windows server


  • Useful for finding information in an XML document
  • Able to navigate elements and attributes
  • Can create XHTML from templates
  • Has many CSS-like features such as these brief examples:
  • //title[@lang] - Selects all title elements with an attribute 'lang'
  • /shop/cd[price>12.99] - Selects all CDs within the <shop> element with a price greater than 12.99
  • child::cd - Selects all CD nodes that are the current node's children
  • ancestor - Selects all ancestors of the current node, such as parents, grandparents and so on.


  • Used for querying XML documents
  • A simple format that returns the XML tags with it
  • Can transform these into XHTML
  • Can add attributes, elements and text


  • Allows links in XML files to point to a specific part of a document (like HTML anchors)


  • Creates hyperlinks in XML
  • Any element can be made a hyperlink!
  • Allows for links to multiple destinations - pages or files
  • Can determine when a linked item is loaded (eg: onload or onclick)


  • For formatting XML
  • Has familiar styles like CSS (borders, padding and margins etc)
  • Defines regions for printing, such as headers and footers

The only thing I don't like much is XSL-FO. It seems verbose to me. Take this example from W3Schools (an excellent site for learning languages like XSLT). All it does is output a two-column table. Does the code really need to look like that? Aren't we in danger of losing the data itself in a sea of tags and attributes? (I think when something gets this complex, it's time to look at it from a new angle.)

  <fo:table-column column-width="25mm"/>
  <fo:table-column column-width="25mm"/>
     <fo:block font-weight="bold">Car</fo:block>
     <fo:block font-weight="bold">Price</fo:block>