Photograph of a magnifying glass zooming text

In the original HTML 3.2 spec, <small> was a purely presentational element, the opposite to <big>: collectively, the tags literally made text smaller and larger.

Quite correctly, <big> was dropped from the HTML5 specification - its effect can be easily replicated by using font-size in CSS - but <small> was retained, and redefined to have a purpose.

<small> is used to demark fine print on a page. Possibilities include:

  • copyright notices
  • legal disclaimers
  • licensing information
  • footnotes
  • side-comments

A typical example would wrap <small> text in a <footer> element:

    <small>Copyright &copy; 2015 Soulless Corporation</small>

Semantically, <small> might be considered the inline equivalent of the <aside> element. Visually, <small> does what it has always done: it makes text one size smaller (large text becomes medium size, already small text becomes extra-small, etc), but that’s almost immaterial: text can be made to look however you want with CSS. <small> is about meaning, not appearance.

Small text should still be legible: it’s important to compensate smaller text with an improved contrast ratio and/or paying attention to line-height.

Photograph of writing on the stairwell of the Corean Pavilion by Costantino Beretta, licensed under Creative Commons

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