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2.9. The XML Declaration

XML documents should (but do not have to) begin with an XML declaration. The XML declaration looks like a processing instruction with the name xml and version, standalone, and encoding attributes. Technically, it's not a processing instruction though, just the XML declaration; nothing more, nothing less. Example 2-7 demonstrates.

Example 2-7. A very simple XML document with an XML declaration

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ASCII" standalone="yes"?>
  Alan Turing

XML documents do not have to have an XML declaration. However, if an XML document does have an XML declaration, then that declaration must be the first thing in the document. It must not be preceded by any comments, whitespace, processing instructions, and so forth. The reason is that an XML parser uses the first five characters (<?xml) to make some reasonable guesses about the encoding, such as whether the document uses a single byte or multibyte character set. The only thing that may precede the XML declaration is an invisible Unicode byte-order mark. We'll discuss this further in Chapter 5.

2.9.1. encoding

So far we've been a little cavalier about encodings. We've said that XML documents are composed of pure text, but we haven't said what encoding that text uses. Is it ASCII? Latin-1? Unicode? Something else?

The short answer to this question is "Yes." The long answer is that by default XML documents are assumed to be encoded in the UTF-8 variable-length encoding of the Unicode character set. This is a strict superset of ASCII, so pure ASCII text files are also UTF-8 documents. However, most XML processors, especially those written in Java, can handle a much broader range of character sets. All you have to do is tell the parser which character encoding the document uses. Preferably this is done through metainformation, stored in the filesystem or provided by the server. However, not all systems provide character-set metadata so XML also allows documents to specify their own character set with an encoding declaration inside the XML declaration. Example 2-8 shows how you'd indicate that a document was written in the ISO-8859-1 (Latin-1) character set that includes letters like ö and ç needed for many non-English Western European languages.

Example 2-8. An XML document encoded in Latin-1

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" standalone="yes"?>
  Erwin Schrödinger

The encoding attribute is optional in an XML declaration. If it is omitted and no metadata is available, then the Unicode character set is assumed. The parser may use the first several bytes of the file to try to guess which encoding of Unicode is in use. If metadata is available and it conflicts with the encoding declaration, then the encoding specified by the metadata wins. For example, if an HTTP header says a document is encoded in ASCII but the encoding declaration says it's encoded in UTF-8, then the parser will pick ASCII.

The different encodings and the proper handling of non-English XML documents will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 5.

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