Writing code to handle XML transformations in XSLT is much easier than in any other commonly used programming language. But the XSLT language has such a different syntax and processing model from classical programming languages that it takes time to grasp all of XSLT's subtle nuances.
This article is in no way meant as an extensive and complex XSLT tutorial. Instead, it starts with explanation of topics that pose the biggest difficulties for inexperienced XML and XSLT developers. Later, it moves to topics related to the overall design of stylesheets and their performance.
Working with namespaces
Although it's increasingly rare to see XML documents without namespaces, there still seems to be some confusion related to their proper use in different technologies. Many documents use prefixes to denote elements in a namespace, and this explicit notation of namespaces doesn't typically lead to confusion. The example in Listing 1 shows a simple SOAP message that uses two namespaces—one for the SOAP envelope and one for the actual payload.
Listing 1. XML document with namespaces
<env:Envelope xmlns:env="http://www.w3.org/2003/05/soap-envelope"> <env:Body> <p:itinerary xmlns:p="http://travelcompany.example.org/reservation/travel"> <p:departure> <p:departing>New York</p:departing> <p:arriving>Los Angeles</p:arriving> <p:departureDate>2001-12-14</p:departureDate> <p:departureTime>late afternoon</p:departureTime> <p:seatPreference>aisle</p:seatPreference> </p:departure> <p:return> <p:departing>Los Angeles</p:departing> <p:arriving>New York</p:arriving> <p:departureDate>2001-12-20</p:departureDate> <p:departureTime>mid-morning</p:departureTime> <p:seatPreference/> </p:return> </p:itinerary> </env:Body> </env:Envelope>
As elements in the source document have prefixes, it's clear that they belong to a namespace. No one will have problems processing such a document in XSLT. It is sufficient to duplicate namespace declarations from the source document in the stylesheet. Although you can use arbitrary prefixes, it's usually more convenient to use the same prefixes as in typical input documents, as in Listing 2.
Listing 2. Stylesheet that accesses information in a namespaced document
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform" version="1.0" xmlns:env="http://www.w3.org/2003/05/soap-envelope" xmlns:p="http://travelcompany.example.org/reservation/travel"> <xsl:template match="/"> Departure location: <xsl:value-of select="/env:Envelope/env:Body/p:itinerary/p:departure/p:departing"/> </xsl:template> </xsl:stylesheet>
As you can see, this code declares namespace prefixes
p on the root element
declarations are then inherited by all elements in the stylesheet so you
can use them in any embedded XPath expression. Also note that in XPath
expressions, you must prefix all elements with the appropriate namespace
prefix. If you forget to mention a prefix in any step, your expression
will return nothing—an error for which it's difficult to track the
Documents that use namespaces are typically the cause of trouble when the
use of namespaces is not apparent at first blush. If you have a lot of
elements in one namespace, you can define this namespace as a default
xmlns attribute. Elements from the default
namespace do not use prefixes; therefore, it's easy to miss that they're
actually in a namespace. Imagine that you have to transform the XHTML
document in Listing 3.
Listing 3. XHTML document using a default namespace
<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml"> <head> <title>Example XHTML document</title> </head> <body> <p>Sample content</p> </body> </html>
It might be that you simply glanced over
xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml", or it might be that
this default namespace declaration is preceded by a dozen other attributes
and you simply didn't see what was in column 167—even on your
widescreen display. It is quite natural to write XPath expressions like
/html/head/title, but such expressions return an empty node
set, because the input document contains no elements like
title. All elements in the input document belong to the
http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml namespace, and this must be
reflected in the XPath expressions.
To access namespaced elements in XPath, you must define a prefix for their namespace. For example, if you want to access a title in the sample XHTML document, you have to define a prefix for the XHTML namespace, then use this prefix in all XPath steps, as the example stylesheet in Listing 4 shows.
Listing 4. The transformation must use namespace prefixes even for input documents that use a default namespace
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform" version="1.0" xmlns:h="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml"> <xsl:template match="/"> Title of document: <xsl:value-of select="/h:html/h:head/h:title"/> </xsl:template> </xsl:stylesheet>
Again, you have to be very careful about prefixes in XPath expressions. One missing prefix, and you'll get the wrong result.
Unfortunately, XSLT version 1.0 has no concept similar to a default namespace; therefore, you must repeat namespace prefixes again and again. This problem was rectified in XSLT version 2.0, where you can specify a default namespace that applies to un-prefixed elements in an XPath expression. In XSLT 2.0, you can simplify the previous stylesheet as in Listing 5.
Listing 5. Declaration of a XPath default namespace in XSLT 2.0
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform" version="2.0" xpath-default-namespace="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml"> <xsl:template match="/"> Title of document: <xsl:value-of select="/html/head/title"/> </xsl:template> </xsl:stylesheet>
Improper use of node test text()
Most stylesheets contain dozens of simple templates that are responsible for processing leaf elements in input documents. For example, you store a price inside an element:
and you want to output it as a new paragraph in HTML with the currency and a label added:
<p>Price: 124.95 USD</p>
In many stylesheets I have seen, templates that handle this functionality
can fail miserably. The reason is the use of the
test inside the template body, which in 99 percent of cases leads to
broken code. What's wrong with the following template?
<xsl:template match="price"> <p>Price: <xsl:value-of select="text()"/> USD</p> </xsl:template>
The XPath expression inside the
xsl:value-of instruction is
shorthand for the expression
child::text(). This expression
selects all text nodes between the children of the
<price> element. Typically, there's only one such node,
and everything works as expected. But imagine that you put a comment or
processing instruction in the middle of the
<price>12<!-- I'm a comment. I should be ignored. -->4.95</price>
The expression now returns two text nodes:
4.95. But the semantics of
xsl:value-of is such
that it returns only the first node of the node set. In this case, you'll
get the wrong output:
<p>Price: 12 USD</p>
xsl:value-of expects a single node, you must use it
with an expressions that returns a single node. In many situations, a
reference to the current node (
.) is the right approach. The
correct form of the example template above, then, is:
<xsl:template match="price"> <p>Price: <xsl:value-of select="."/> USD</p> </xsl:template>
The current node (
.) now returns the whole
<price> element. The
instruction automatically returns the string value of a node that is a
concatenation of all text node descendants. Such an approach guarantees
that you will always get the whole content of an element regardless of
included comments, processing instructions, or sub-elements.
In XSLT 2.0, the semantics of the
xsl:value-of instruction is
changed, and it returns a string value of all passed
nodes—not just of the first one. But it's still better to reference
the element for which content should be returned to its text nodes. This
way, code won't break when new sub-elements are added to provide more
Don't lose the context node
Each template (
xsl:template) or iteration
xsl:for-each) is instantiated with a current node. All
relative XPath expressions are evaluated starting from this current node.
If you start an XPath expression with
/, the expression won't
be evaluated against the current node; instead, the evaluation will start
at the document root node. The result of such expressions will always be
the same, and it won't be related to the current node.
Imagine that you want to process the simple invoice in Listing 6.
Listing 6. Sample invoice
<invoice> <item> <description>Pilsner Beer</description> <qty>6</qty> <unitPrice>1.69</unitPrice> </item> <item> <description>Sausage</description> <qty>3</qty> <unitPrice>0.59</unitPrice> </item> <item> <description>Portable Barbecue</description> <qty>1</qty> <unitPrice>23.99</unitPrice> </item> <item> <description>Charcoal</description> <qty>2</qty> <unitPrice>1.19</unitPrice> </item> </invoice>
If you forgot to write expressions relative to the current node, you can easily end up with the wrong stylesheet, as in Listing 7.
Listing 7. Example of a bad stylesheet that loses context
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform" version="1.0"> <xsl:template match="/"> <html> <head> <title>Invoice</title> </head> <body> <table> <xsl:for-each select="/invoice/item"> <tr> <td><xsl:value-of select="/invoice/item/description"/></td> <td><xsl:value-of select="/invoice/item/qty"/></td> <td><xsl:value-of select="/invoice/item/unitPrice"/></td> </tr> </xsl:for-each> </table> </body> </html> </xsl:template>
correctly selects all items in the invoice. But expressions inside
xsl:for-each are wrong, as they start with
which means that they're absolute. Such expressions always return a
description, the quantity, and price of the first item (remember from the
previous section that
xsl:value-of returns only the first
node from a node set), because an absolute expression does not depend on
the current node, which corresponds to the currently processed item.
To easily fix this problem, use a relative expression inside
xsl:for-each, as in Listing 8.
Listing 8. Use of relative XPath expressions inside the iteration body
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform" version="1.0"> <xsl:template match="/"> <html> <head> <title>Invoice</title> </head> <body> <table> <xsl:for-each select="/invoice/item"> <tr> <td><xsl:value-of select="description"/></td> <td><xsl:value-of select="qty"/></td> <td><xsl:value-of select="unitPrice"/></td> </tr> </xsl:for-each> </table> </body> </html> </xsl:template> </xsl:stylesheet>
Avoid broken links in non-Microsoft browsers
XSLT is good at automating common tasks. One such boring and laborious task
is preparing a table of contents. With XSLT, you can generate such a table
automatically. You simply generate anchors, then links pointing back to
them. In HTML, you create an anchor simply by putting a unique identifier
When you construct a link back to this anchor, add
the fragment identifier (
#) to indicate that this is a link
to a particular place inside the document:
<a href="#label">link to …</a>
A real stylesheet typically produces labels and links by using the
generate-id() function or a real identifier provided in the
The problem with this linking task is actually not in XSLT itself but in
some "too clever" Web browsers. I've seen many stylesheets in which a
fragment identifier (
#) was added to the anchor by mistake.
The output of the stylesheet was then tested only in Windows®
Internet Explorer®. Unfortunately, Internet Explorer can recover from
many errors in HTML code, so there's no problem with links from the user
perspective. But if you try the same page in such browsers as Mozilla
Firefox or Opera, the links are broken, because these browsers can't
recover from the excessive
To avoid other similar problems, the best you can do is test your stylesheet-generated output in multiple browsers.
Simplify stylesheets by changing the context node
If you process business documents or data-oriented XML, it's common not to rely extensively on a template mechanism but rather just cherry-pick the required content and assemble it to the desired form in one large template. Imagine that you want to process the invoice in Listing 9.
Listing 9. Invoice with a complex structure
<Invoice> <ID>IN 2003/00645</ID> <IssueDate>2003-02-25</IssueDate> <TaxPointDate>2003-02-25</TaxPointDate> <OrderReference> <BuyersID>S03-034257</BuyersID> <SellersID>SW/F1/50156</SellersID> <IssueDate>2003-02-03</IssueDate> </OrderReference> <BuyerParty> <Party> <Name>Jerry Builder plc</Name> <Address> <StreetName>Marsh Lane</StreetName> <CityName>Nowhere</CityName> <PostalZone>NR18 4XX</PostalZone> <CountrySubentity>Norfolk</CountrySubentity> </Address> <Contact>Eva Brick</Contact> </Party> </BuyerParty> … </Invoice>
A typical stylesheet for processing this document (see Listing 10) will contain a lot of repeated paths in XPath expressions, because a good deal of information is in the same part of the input XML tree.
Listing 10. This naive stylesheet uses a lot of repeated XPath code
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform" version="1.0"> <xsl:template match="/"> <html> <head> <title>Invoice #<xsl:value-of select="/Invoice/ID"/></title> </head> <body> <h1>Invoice #<xsl:value-of select="/Invoice/ID"/> issued on <xsl:value-of select="/Invoice/IssueDate"/></h1> <div> <h2>Buyer:</h2> <p> <b><xsl:value-of select="/Invoice/BuyerParty/Party/Name"/></b> </p> <p>Address:<br/> <xsl:value-of select="/Invoice/BuyerParty/Party/Address/StreetName"/><br/> <xsl:value-of select="/Invoice/BuyerParty/Party/Address/CityName"/><br/> <xsl:value-of select="/Invoice/BuyerParty/Party/Address/PostalZone"/> </p> <p>Contact person: <xsl:value-of select="/Invoice/BuyerParty/Party/Contact"/></p> … </div> </body> </html> </xsl:template> </xsl:stylesheet>
Those repetitions in XPath expression are tedious—you have to repeat
them again and again. They can also prove a future burden. Any changes to
the structure of the input document create more places in which you have
to adjust the expression. You can simplify the stylesheet by factoring out
a common part of the expressions. You do this by using instructions that
change the current node—
xsl:for-each. The stylesheet in Listing
11 contains significantly less repeated information.
Listing 11. stylesheet with common XPath paths factored out
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform" version="1.0"> <xsl:template match="Invoice"> <html> <head> <title>Invoice #<xsl:value-of select="ID"/></title> </head> <body> <h1>Invoice #<xsl:value-of select="ID"/> issued on <xsl:value-of select="IssueDate"/></h1> <div> <h2>Buyer:</h2> <xsl:for-each select="BuyerParty/Party"> <p> <b><xsl:value-of select="Name"/></b> </p> <xsl:for-each select="Address"> <p>Address:<br/> <xsl:value-of select="StreetName"/><br/> <xsl:value-of select="CityName"/><br/> <xsl:value-of select="PostalZone"/> </p> </xsl:for-each> <p>Contact person: <xsl:value-of select="Contact"/></p> </xsl:for-each> … </div> </body> </html> </xsl:template> </xsl:stylesheet>
I've changed the match on the template from
Invoice so that I don't have to repeat this root element name
at the start of each XPath expression. Inside the template, I used
xsl:for-each to temporally change the current node to
BuyerParty/Party) and inside it once
again to address (
Address). It might seem strange to
xsl:for-each for non-repeating elements, but there's
nothing wrong with it: The body of the iteration will be invoked only once
but with a changed current node, which will save a lot of repeated typing.
Processing mixed content
Mixed content is typically present in document-oriented XML. Mixed content is structure in which an element contains as children both elements and text nodes. A typical example of mixed content is a paragraph that contains text with additional markup, like emphasis or links:
<para><emphasis>Douglas Adams</emphasis> was an English author, comic radio dramatist, and musician. He is best known as the author of the <link url="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hitchhiker's_Guide_to_the_Galaxy">Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy</link> series.</para>
It is important to process mixed content in document order; otherwise, you
can get completely mangled output, with a changed order of sentence parts.
The most natural way to process mixed content is by calling
xsl:apply-templates on the element with mixed content or on
all of its children. Subsequent templates can then handle embedded markup
such as emphasis and links.
I've seen many stylesheets that use a "cherry-picked" approach for mixed
content handling. This approach is well suited to documents with regular
structure, but mixed content typically varies in its internal structure
and is difficult to handle correctly this way. So, whenever you see mixed
content, try to forgot about simple
xsl:for-each and move your interest to templates.
Ineffectiveness in your stylesheets
If you write small transformations operating on rather small datasets—for example, a view layer in a Web application—you're probably not very concerned about performance of transformation itself, as this process is typically fractional to the rest of processing. But when an XSLT stylesheet performs complex operations or works on a large input document, it's time to start thinking about the performance impact of constructs used in the stylesheet.
In general, it's difficult to make any judgments solely from XSLT code, as it depends on the particular XSLT implementation—whether it can handle some code well and possibly speed it up by using some sort of optimization.
Regardless, some things are good to skip in real stylesheets. If you want
to save the planet, use the descendant axis (
carefully. When you use
//, the XSLT processor has to inspect
the whole tree (or subtree) in its full depth. In larger documents, this
can be a very expensive operation. It is wise to write more specific
expressions that explicitly specify where to look for nodes. For example,
to get a buyer's address, it's better to write
/Invoice/BuyerParty/Party/Address instead of
//BuyerParty//Address or even
first variant is much faster, because only a fraction of the nodes have to
be inspected during evaluation. Such targeted expressions are also less
likely to be affected by the document structure evolution, where new
elements with the same name but a different meaning can be added into
different contexts in the input document.
Another trick when you do a lot of lookups, define a lookup key using
xsl:key, then use the
key() function to perform
You can make plenty of other optimizations, but their impact depends on the XSLT processor you use.
XSLT 1.0 or 2.0?
Which XSLT version you use depends on several factors, but generally, I recommend using XSLT 2.0. The latest version of the language contains many new instructions and functions that can greatly simplify many tasks—shorter and straightforward code is always easier to maintain. Moreover, in XSLT 2.0, you can write schema-aware stylesheets, which use a schema to validate both input and output documents. Schema-aware stylesheets can use information contained in a schema to automatically detect some types of errors and mistakes in your stylesheets.
This article covered some areas that tend to be more challenging in XSLT. I hope that now you have better understanding of some XSLT features and that you will be able to write better XSLT stylesheets.
- What kind of language is XSLT? (Michael Kay, developerWorks,April 2005): Put XSLT in context with this analysis and overview that explains the role and design of XSLT.
- Planning to upgrade XSLT 1.0 to 2.0 (David Marston, Joanne Tong, Henry Zongaro; developerWorks; October 2006 - July 2007): In this 7-part series, explore some new XSLT 2.0 features.
- New to XML: Check out this getting started site for XML newbies.
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