Using Unordered Lists for Forms

I like using unordered lists to mark up my forms. I’m not sure when I started doing it and I’ve never really thought hard about why. A couple weeks ago I got into a debate with a coworker who believes forms should never be lists. If the labels and inputs need anything to wrap them a div is appropriate, not a list. That may be an oversimplification of his argument and I hope and encourage him to write a post explaining his position, as well.

I love debating semantics, so I am glad we got into the discussion we did. It forced me to really think about why I use lists.

SPOILER: I still like using lists.

Forms are a list of questions

My main reason is one of semantics. When we present a user with a form, we are asking them a list of questions. I’m not saying forms have to be made up of lists; divs are also semantically fine since they have no semantic meaning. That said, I can’t think of a good reason not to add additional semantics to a document, as long as they are appropriate.

The ul element represents a list of items, where the order of the items is not important — that is, where changing the order would not materially change the meaning of the document.

W3C HTML5 - Grouping Content

The most important part here is “a list of items.” ul has a very open ended semantic meaning. A bunch of form elements is a list of items. It is a list of label/input pairs. Where using a ul comes in handy over a semantically neutral div is that it creates a relationship between the inputs. When a screen reader comes to a list, it tells a sightless user how many items are in the list. Since I can see, I don’t need this because I can count them. For a blind person, what harm is there in showing them how long the form is?

ul adds useful styling hooks

From a styling perspective, it means I don’t have to apply classes to all of the wrapping divs to target them for default styles. I can put one class on the ul and then add a bottom margin to every child li. That is useful and makes styling easier.

ul creates a coding standard

Also, of lesser importance, it creates a consistent coding standard. It’s any easy markup pattern that everyone knows and doesn’t leave a bunch of ambiguity about where to put divs and how many and around what. Granted, this can be achieved through good project documentation of whatever elements are used.

Do whatever works for you

I certainly don’t believe using ul is the One True Way to mark up a form, but I don’t believe you can argue that it is the wrong way either. It adheres to the spec, adds additional meaning, aids in styling, and is a solid coding standard. Technically, you could probably argue that an entire web page is a list, but you need to draw a line somewhere. For me, it is the point where semantics and ease of use cross paths. When it comes to forms, using ul makes my life easier without doing semantic harm. That’s enough for me.