Normative vs. Non-normative

In my current journey to thoroughly study and understand web accessibility, I had a question that I needed to ask the Internet about W3C documentation:

“What is the difference between normative and non-normative?”

I found a great explanation on StackOverflow by Michael Kay:

“Normative” means that it’s an official formal part of the specification; non-normative means that it’s there to be helpful and aid understanding, but you can’t appeal to it in a court of law (so to speak).

I’ve heard the terms “normative” and “non-normative” used when referring to web standards documentation and accessibility help, but I had no clue what that meant. To me, the above explanation makes it clearer in my mind:

  • normative: official and approved wording; holds up in a court of law
  • non-normative: an aid that breaks down the specification; often tutorials

As I began working through IAAP’s Web Accessibility Specialist Body of Knowledge (Word doc), I noted differences were clearly specified:

I wanted to point out these specific examples because this is one area where I’ve been hesitant to dive in deep. I’ve jumped into the WCAG (normative) docs many times for one reason or another, but had not spent much time there. On the flip side, I’ve spent lots of time reading through How to Understand WCAG (non-normative). It cites the normative documentation, but makes information a lot easier to read, digest, and assimilate into my own knowledge base.


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