Get started with XPath
Learn the basics
Should I take this tutorial?
This tutorial introduces and covers most aspects of the XML Path Language, or XPath. It is aimed at people who do not know XPath or want a refresher. If you plan to use XSLT, you should take this tutorial first. You will learn:
- What XPath is
- The syntax and semantics of the XPath language
- How to use XPath location paths
- How to use XPath expressions
- How to use XPath functions
- How XPath relates to XSLT
XPath is a W3C standard. This tutorial focuses on version 1.0. Refer to Tutorial wrap-up for information on the upcoming XPath 2.0.
This tutorial assumes basic knowledge of XML. For example, you should know what elements, attributes, and values are. If you aren't familiar with these, I recommend you first take the "Introduction to XML" tutorial, listed in Related topics.
You will also need a text editor and a Web browser. Although it's not a prerequisite, you may also find it useful to have an XML editor, as it will include an XPath evaluator that allows you to test the XPath expressions used here.
Listed below are the technologies mentioned in this tutorial. Skip this if you are already familiar with XML-related technologies. All of these technologies are W3C specifications.
- XML is the eXtensible Markup Language. It is the basis for the other technologies listed below (and many more), and is very widely used in the industry because of its extensibility.
- XML Schema, sometimes referred to as XSD, defines the rules for the data contained in XML documents.
- XSL (eXtensible Stylesheet Language) and XSLT (XSL transformations) are used to present XML documents in a different format -- for example, HTML.
- XPath -- hmm... that's a good question. ;-)
About the example used in this tutorial
In this tutorial, you will learn XPath by writing the presentation layer of an auction site application. You will specify the XPath expressions inside an XSLT stylesheet that's used to present XML documents containing auction items. All the files used in this tutorial are in the zip file, x-xpathTutorial.zip (see Related topics for a link), including:
- XPath/AuctionItemList.xsd - an XML Schema document that defines the data format of the auction items.
- XPath/AuctionItemList.xml - an XML file that contains a list of auction items; it is the data for the example.
- XPath/AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl - an XSLT stylesheet that defines what a Web browser will display when it loads AuctionItemList.xml; it contains the data's presentation rules.
- XPath/AuctionItemSummary-Section5.xsl - the solution in Location paths .
- XPath/AuctionItemSummary-Section6.xsl - the solution in Expressions .
- XPath/AuctionItemSummary-Section7.xsl - the solution in Function library .
AuctionItemList.xsd contains the business rules for the auction item and auction items list data, described in XML Schema language:
An auction item list has only one root element called
list of type
auctionItemList is composed of zero or more
elements of type
auctionItem is composed of five elements (
currentPrice of type
sellerId) and one attribute group of
price is a positive decimal value with two decimal places and must
currency attribute of type
associated with it.
customCurrency must be one of
itemAttributes group must contain one string attribute
type, one string attribute
id, and one boolean
private, that is
false by default.
type attribute must be one of the following:
If you want to learn more about XML Schema, see Related topics for more developerWorks articles and tutorials.
AuctionItemList.xml conforms to the XML schema defined in
AuctionItemList.xsd and contains a list of type
list contains seven items. The
xsi:schemaLocation attribute of the list
root element indicates that this XML document must conform to the
That takes care of the data format, but what about the presentation? How do you specify which XSLT stylesheet to use to display this XML document in a Web browser? This is defined in the second line of the XML document:
<?xml-stylesheet type="text/xsl" href="AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl"?>
Here, I state that the AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl stylesheet should be used. The data itself has been chosen so that the use of XPath can be demonstrated to show specific data properties. When no XML stylesheet document is linked to AuctionItemList.xml, then a Web browser simply shows the XML contents and it looks like the following:
Figure 1. AuctionItemList.xml
AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl is the XSLT stylesheet that defines the
rules used by an XSLT processor to display
documents. It uses XPath expressions to find information in the XML document and
display it in an HTML table. I will focus in more detail on the use of XPath in XSLT
in XPath overview . Here, I describe briefly the contents of
AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl. It defines templates that are activated when XML
documents are processed. Which template is activated depends on the XPath expression
documented in the
match attribute of this
element. For example, the following snippets, taken from
AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl, are XPath expressions:
The information that displays when a template is activated is defined by its
select attributes. These
attributes' values are also XPath expressions. For example:
By this point, you should have looked at the files in a text/XML editor. Now you can open AuctionItemList.xml in your favorite Web browser to see the output generated by an XSLT processor based on the stylesheet. You should see something similar to the following:
Figure 2. The base auction item table
What is XPath?
The XML Path Language (XPath) is a set of syntax and semantics for referring to portions of XML documents. XPath is intended to be used by other specifications such as XSL Transformations (XSLT) and the XML Pointer Language (XPointer). To help you understand what XPath is, I will start by showing examples related to AuctionItemList.xml.
XPath expressions identify a set of nodes in an XML document. This
set of nodes can contain zero or more nodes. For example, the XPath expression
/list, if applied to AuctionItemList.xml, identifies one single
node -- the
list root element.
The XPath expression
/list/item identifies all the
XPath uses a notation with forward slashes (
/) similar the UNIX shell.
This is so that XPath can be used in Uniformed Resource Identifiers (URIs), such as
URLs. This is actually where XPath's name comes from: the use of a path notation as
Legal XPath expressions can include predicates. Predicates contain boolean expressions, which are tested for each node in the context node-set. If true, the node is kept in the set of nodes identified; otherwise, the node is discarded. Predicates are useful in reducing the result set. For example, the following XPath expression identifies the second item only:
XPath expressions can refer to attributes as well as elements in an XML document.
When referring to an attribute, the
@ character is used. For example,
the following XPath expression identifies
currentPrice elements whose
currency attributes contain the value
XPath also provides functions , which can come in very handy. I'll
show you these in more detail in Function library , but here is a
taste of it. The XPath expression below identifies the
element of the item whose
type attribute is
"IndividualOffer" (and has the value
Test the above XPath expressions in your favorite XML editor: Open AuctionItemList.xml and enter the expressions in the XPath evaluator to see which nodes are selected.
That's it -- you've now been introduced to XPath! So far, you've learned that XPath
is a language for identifying parts of XML documents. You've seen what an XPath
expression looks like and how it refers to elements and attributes inside XML
documents. I've also shown you how XPath provides functions for manipulating data.
However, this is just a quick overview; I will discuss all these points in more
detail -- as well as more aspects of XPath -- in the remaining sections. For
example, I'll examine XPath namespaces and special characters (such as
*) and show you that not all XPath expressions
have the form shown in the examples above (called abbreviated location paths).
XSLT, XLink, and XPointer
XSLT, XLink, and XPointer are all W3C standards. XSLT and XPath, along with XSL Formatting Object (XSL-FO), form the W3C eXtensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) family of specifications. (see Related topics if you want to look at these specifications.)
Presenting : XSLT uses XPath extensively for matching -- that is, testing whether a node matches a given pattern. XSLT specifies the context used by XPath. You should understand XPath if you want to work with XSLT. In About the example used in this tutorial , you saw that the AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl stylesheet contains XPath expressions. These XPath expressions are used by XSLT to find elements that match criteria in the source document, and also to display information in the result document. XSLT also makes use of XPath functions to perform arithmetic or string manipulation operations.
Linking: XLink provides a generalization of the HTML hyperlink concept in XML. XLink defines a syntax for elements to be inserted into XML documents in order to link resources together and to describe their relationship. These links can be unidirectional, like HTML's hyperlinks, or more complex. XLink uses XPointer to locate resources.
Pointing: XPointer is an extension to XPath that provides addressing into XML documents and their internals. XPointer generalizes the notion of XPath nodes with the concept of XPointer locations, points, and ranges. XPointer also specifies the context used during XPath evaluation and provides extra functions that aren't available in XPath.
XPath is essential to the specifications mentioned above. In fact, the XPath specification explicitly states that XPath is designed to be used by XSLT and XPointer.
Here is a recap of the XML technologies I have talked about so far:
- XML: basis for other technologies (data)
- XML Schema: data format rules
- XSLT: data presentation/matching
- XLink: linking
- XPointer and XPath: addressing
What is an XPath node?
XPath sees an XML document as a tree of nodes. Nodes can be of different types, such as element nodes or attribute nodes. Some types of nodes have names that consist of a nullable XML namespace URI and a local part. For example, the figure below shows the XPath representation of AuctionItemList.xml as a tree of nodes:
Figure 3. XPath's view of AuctionItemList.xml
One special type of node is the root node. An XML document contains only one such node and it is the root of the tree, containing the whole of the XML document. Note that the root node contains the root element as well as any processing, declaration, or comment nodes that appear before or after the root element. In the example, the children of the root node are:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<?xml-stylesheet type="text/xsl" href="AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl"?>
<list ...> <item ...> ... </item> <item ...> ... </item> ... </list>
No node type exists for XML declarations (such as
encoding="UTF-8"?>) or Document Type Definitions (DTDs). It is
therefore not possible to refer to such entities in XPath.
Element nodes represent every element in an XML document. Attribute nodes belong to
element nodes and represent attributes in the XML document. However, attributes that
xmlns: are represented in XPath with namespace nodes. Other
types of nodes include text nodes, processing instruction nodes, and comment
Out of context?
XPath evaluates expressions relative to a context. This context is
usually specified by the technologies that extend XPath, such as XSLT and XPointer.
An XPath context includes a context node, context size, context position, and other
context data. From a context standpoint, the context node is of most interest here.
When the context node is the root node,
list/item refers to the seven
item elements in AuctionItemList.xml. When the context node is
another node -- for example, the first
item element --
list/item does not refer to anything in the XML document.
In XSLT, the values of
select attributes are XPath expressions. For
example, in AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl, the
xsl:value-of elements have
select attributes whose
values (XPath expressions) are, among others,
itemId. In XSLT, the context node is the current node being
evaluated. XSLT templates can be activated several times for an XML
document and produce different results. With AuctionItemList.xml, the first and
second templates (
respectively) are activated once, and the third template (
is activated seven times (once for each
item element). The first time
the "item" template is activated, the context node is the first
element in the XML document ("Miles Smiles album, CD") and, for example, the value
<xsl:value-of select="@id"/> is
second time the XSLT template is activated, the context node is the second
item element (the "Coltrane Blue Train" CD) and the value of
<xsl:value-of select="@id"/> is
that had I used
/list/item/@id as opposed to
@id for the
select attribute, the value of the
element would have been null.
What is a location path?
Location paths are the most useful and widely used feature of XPath. A location path is a specialization of an XPath expression (described in Expressions ). A location path identifies a set of XPath nodes relative to its context. XPath defines two syntaxes: the abbreviated syntax and the unabbreviated syntax.
In this tutorial, I only talk about the abbreviated syntax because it is the most widely used; the unabbreviated syntax is also more complex. If you are interested in the unabbreviated syntax, have a look at the XPath 1.0 specification (see Related topics).
The two types of location paths are relative and absolute.
A relative location path is a sequence of location steps separated
/. For example:
This location path consists of two location steps: the first,
selects a set of nodes relative to the context node; the second,
item[currentPrice<20.0], selects a set of nodes in the subset
identified by the first step; and so on, if there are more nodes.
An absolute location path consists of a
followed by a relative location path, with
/ referring to the root
node. An absolute location path is basically a relative location path evaluated in
the context of the root node, for example:
With absolute location paths (location paths that start with
context node isn't meaningful because the path is always evaluated from the root
The abbreviated syntax provides a set of useful characters (most of which you saw in XPath overview ). I will now enumerate the most commonly used characters and give examples relative to the root node of AuctionItemList.xml -- that is, with the context node being the root node of AuctionItemList.xml.
@ is used to refer to attributes. For example, the location path
@currency identifies the
list/item[@private] identifies the
item elements with
private attribute -- meaning, all the
item elements in
* is used to refer to all the elements that are children of the context node. @* is used to refer to all the attributes of the context node.
 can also be used to refer to specific elements in an ordered
sequence. For example,
list/item refers to the second
item element. This is actually a predicate (described next in Predicates).
// is used to refer to all children of the context node. For
//item refers to all
item elements, and
//list/item refers to all
item elements that have a
list parent (that is, all the
item elements in the
. is used to refer to the context node itself. For example,
. selects the context node, and
.//item refers to all
item elements that are children of the context node.
.. is used to refer to the parent of the context node. For example,
../item would refer to the first
item element in the
context of the first
Predicates are used in location paths to filter the current set of
nodes. A predicate contains a boolean expression (or an expression
that can be easily converted to boolean). Each member of the current node-set is
tested against the boolean expression and kept if the expression is true; otherwise,
it is rejected. A predicate is enclosed in square brackets,
. Have a
look at the following location path:
During evaluation, all
currentPrice elements in AuctionItemList.xml are
in the selected node-set. Then, the
@currency="EUR" predicate is
evaluated and the
currentPrice elements whose currencies do not contain
EUR value are rejected.
Predicates can also use the relational operators
They can also use boolean operators, as you'll see in Expressions
Lab: Location paths
Now that I have explained what location paths are, your task is to modify AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl to produce the following output -- specifically, a table containing only the items with currency listed in U.S. dollars:
Figure 4. Table containing auction items in U.S. dollars
Note: You need to replace the value of the
attribute inside the
list template with the correct location path. Use
single quotation marks (
') inside a string enclosed in double quotation
" ). I will talk more about this in Expressions
A solution to this is AuctionItemSummary-Section5.xsl. Change the second line of AuctionItemList.xml to refer to AuctionItemSummary-Section5.xsl, and open AuctionItemList.xml in your Web browser.
Location paths are a subset of the more general XPath expressions. An expression refers not only to a set of nodes (location paths), but can also return a boolean, a number, or a string.
A boolean expression can have one of two values: true or false.
XPath defines the
or operators. With
and, the left operand is evaluated first: If it is false, the
expression returns false; otherwise, the right operand is evaluated and determines
the result of the expression. With
or, the left operand is evaluated
and if true, the expression returns true; otherwise, the right operand is evaluated
and determines the value of the expression. As an example, the boolean expression
type="BidOnly" evaluates to true in the context of the second
item element of AuctionItemList.xml.
XPath defines the following operators:
=means "is equal to"
!=means "is not equal to"
<means "is less than"
<=means "is less than or equal to"
>means "is greater than"
>=means "is greater than or equal to"
For example, the boolean expression
bidIncrement != 10 returns true in
the context of the first
item element in AuctionItemList.xml and false
in the context of the second
= operator, when applied to nodes, tests whether two nodes have the
same value, not whether they are the same node. This can be used to compare
attribute values. For example,
item[@type = @private] selects items
private attributes have the same value.
When an XPath expression is contained in an XML document, the well-formedness rules
of XML 1.0 need to be followed, and any
characters must be quoted using
respectively. For example, the XPath expression
bidIncrement < 5 is
valid in XPointer but needs to be written as
bidIncrement < 5 if
it is to be contained in an XSLT document.
Conversions happen when operands of a boolean expression are not of the same type (node-set, numbers, strings). Refer to the XPath 1.0 specification for details.
An XPath number is a double precision 64-bit floating-point number.
XPath numbers include the "Not-a-Number"
NaN value, positive and
negative infinity, and positive and negative zero.
Numeric operators provided by XPath are:
div (division), and
mod (remainder from truncating division).
Numeric operators convert operands to numbers if needed, as if they were using the
number function (described in Function library
Note: The subtraction (
-) operator has to be preceded
by whitespace because XML allows "
-" characters in strings.
Here are a few examples of XPath numeric expressions:
- 7 + 3 returns 10
- 7 - 3 returns 4
- 7 * 3 returns 21
- 7 div 3 returns 2.3333333333333335
- 7 mod 3 returns 1
Note: An asterisk (
*) can be interpreted as the wild
card character or as the multiplier character. XPath defines lexical rules to
eliminate ambiguities (see the XPath 1.0 specification for details). However, a new
operator was introduced for the division character,
div, because the
forward slash (
/) is used to separate location steps.
XPath strings are a sequence of valid XML 1.0 (Unicode) characters
-- for example,
Miles Smiles album, CD.
Strings in XPath are enclosed in quotation marks (
When an XPath string is contained in an XML document and contains quotation marks,
you have to use one of the two following options:
- Quote them using
", respectively. For example,
description = 'New 256m "USB" MP3 player'.
- Use single quotation marks (
') if the expression is enclosed in double quotation marks (
"), and vice-versa. For example,
'New 356m "USB" MP3 player'.
XPath provides useful functions for dealing with strings, as described in Function library .
Now that I have explained XPath expressions, your task is to modify AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl to produce the following output -- a table containing all the items whose auction finishes within the hour:
Figure 5. Table containing auctions finishing in the hour
endOfAuction is the time remaining until the end
of the auction, in minutes. You need to modify the same
attribute as in Location paths .
A solution to this is AuctionItemSummary-Section6.xsl. Change the second line of AuctionItemList.xml to refer to AuctionItemSummary-Section6.xsl, and open AuctionItemList.xml in your Web browser.
XPath defines a set of functions called the core function library. Each function is defined by three artifacts:
- A function name
- A return type (mandatory, no void)
- The type of the arguments (zero or more, mandatory, or optional)
You may find functions useful inside predicates and expressions. Other specifications, such as XSLT, extend this function set. Functions are divided into four groups, which I discuss in the rest of this section:
Node-set functions provide information on a set of nodes (one or more nodes). Useful node-set functions include:
last()- Returns a number called the context size, which is the number of nodes in a given context. This is different from the last node.
position()- Returns a number called the context position, which is the position of the current node in the set (list) of nodes in a given context. For example, you can test whether you are dealing with the last node of a set with the expression
count(node-set)- Returns the number of nodes in the argument node-set. For example, in the context of the AuctionItemList.xml document,
count(//item)returns the number of
itemelements, which is 7.
id(object)- Returns a node-set, the result of selecting elements by their unique id declared as type ID in a DTD. Because I don't use a DTD in AuctionItemList.xml, the result node-set is always empty for this example.
Id("ItemId0001")returns an empty node-set.
XPath also defines three other functions related to node names and namespaces:
Refer to section 4.1 of the XPath 1.0 specification for details.
With string functions, you can manipulate strings. Useful string functions include:
string()- Converts the argument object or the context node to a string. Valid arguments are a node-set, a number, a boolean, or any other type -- but in the last case, the conversion result is less predictable. It is recommended to use XSLT's
format-numberfunction to convert numbers to strings, or XSLT's
xsl:numberelement for presenting to users.
concat()- Takes two or more strings as arguments and returns the concatenation of them. For example,
concat("Original ","recording ","Blue Train LP record")returns
"Original recording Blue Train LP record".
starts-with()- Returns true if the first argument string starts with the second argument string; false otherwise. For example,
starts-with("Miles Smiles album, CD", "Miles")returns true.
contains()- Returns true if the first argument string contains the second argument string; false otherwise. For example,
contains("Miles Smiles album, CD", "album")returns true.
Other XPath string functions are
translate(). Refer to section 4.2 of the XPath
1.0 specification for details.
Boolean functions are used to convert an object or a string to either true or false, or to get the true or false values directly. The boolean functions are:
boolean()- Returns the conversion to boolean of the object passed as an argument, according to the following rules: A number is true if different from zero or
NaN; a node-set or a string are true if not empty. Other types of objects are converted in a less predictable way.
not()- Returns true if the boolean passed as argument is false; false otherwise.
false()- Return true or false, respectively. These functions are useful because true and false are seen as normal strings in XPath, and not the true and false values.
lang()- Returns true if the language of the context node is the same or a sub-language of the string argument is specified; false otherwise. The language of the context node is defined by the value of the
xml:langattribute. For example,
lang("en")returns false on any node of the tree for AuctionItemList.xml because the
xml:langattribute is not specified.
Number functions are XPath's numeric functions, and they all return numbers. They are:
number()- Converts the optional object argument (or the context node if no argument is specified) to a number, according to the following rules:
- Boolean true is converted to 1, false to 0.
- A string is converted to a meaningful number.
- A node-set is first converted to a string and then the string converted to a number.
number("250")returns 250 and
sum()- Returns the sum of all nodes in the node-set argument after the
number()function has been applied to them.
floor()- Returns the largest integer number that is not greater that the number argument. For example,
ceiling()- Returns the smallest integer number that is not less than the number argument. For example,
round()- Returns the integer number that is closest to the number argument. For example,
Lab: Function library
Now that I have explained XPath functions, your task is to modify AuctionItemSummary-Base.xsl to produce the following output -- a table containing only the new auction items:
Figure 6. New auction items only
A solution to this is AuctionItemSummary-Section7.xsl. Change the second line of AuctionItemList.xml to refer to AuctionItemSummary-Section7.xsl and open AuctionItemList.xml in your Web browser.
XPath 2.0 is a superset of XPath 1.0 and currently a W3C Working Draft. Two W3C working groups are working on version 2.0 of XPath: the XML Query Working Group and the XSL Working Group. XPath 2.0 has more power and is more robust because it supports a broader set of data types. This is because XPath 2.0 values use XML Schema types rather than simple strings, numbers, or booleans. XPath 2.0 is backward-compatible so that 1.0 expressions behave the same in 2.0, with exceptions listed in the specification.
See Related topics for more information on XPath 2.0.
In this tutorial, you learned that XPath is a language that's used to address parts of XML documents. You saw how XPath relates to other XML technologies, such as XSLT and XPointer. You saw what XPath expressions are, including the special case of expressions called location paths. You also had an overview of the XPath function library and the new features of the upcoming XPath 2.0.
- Read the XML Path Language (XPath) version 1.0 Recommendation at the W3C site.
- Take a look at the XPath 2.0 specification (draft).
- Find out about new features in the upcoming XPath 2.0 in the developerWorks article "XML for Data: What's new in XPath 2.0?" (September 2002).
- Review your XML basics with Doug Tidwell's tutorial "Introduction to XML" (developerWorks, August 2002).
- Learn more about transforming XML documents -- read the XSL Transformations (XSLT) 1.0 specification.
- Check out the W3C XML Schema Recommendation.
- Try the XML Linking Language (XLink) to insert elements into XML documents in order to create and describe links between resources.
- Explore the XML Pointer Language (XPointer), an extension to XPath that provides addressing into XML documents and their internals.
- Find out how you can become an IBM Certified Developer.
- Build your next development project with IBM trial software, available for download directly from developerWorks.