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HTML vs JavaScript: What’s the Difference? Beginner’s Guide

There is no shortage of languages to develop software and websites. HTML vs JavaScript is a common comparison because both offer easy to understand syntax, and have accessibility for beginner coders.

However, both have specific uses, and it’s likely that you’ll code using both at the same time. Even so, there are differences, and you may want to consider whether learning one or the other can benefit your burgeoning career.

HTML vs JavaScript.

For this post, we’ll look at HTML vs JavaScript in relation to their pros and cons, where and how you’ll use each language during development, and much more. First, let’s break down what each language is.

📚 Table of contents:

What HTML and JavaScript are

Both HTML and JavaScript are coding languages, although the technical definitions can differ. For this first section, let’s talk about the broad differences between the languages, then get into how and where you’d use them.

HTML

HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is the backbone of the entire web. As the name implies, it’s a “markup language” rather than a fully-fledged coding language. In a practical sense, this means you’ll use text to control the structure and layout of the encased content on the page.

Here’s an example of what HTML looks like:

<html>
<body>
<h1>This is the main heading on the site.</h1>
<p>This is the main body of content.</p>
<h2>You can set other heading sizes here too.</h2>
</body>
</html>Code language: HTML, XML (xml)

It’ll provide the markup to present content structure on the page:

The front-end of a HTML page.

HTML can also dictate the presentation and formatting of content. In the early days of the web, you’d use HTML to code an entire website. Often, you’d use tables, then set text formatting such as bold and italics without the need to use another language:

A HTML table generator showing the HTML code and the front end display for a table, along with CSS options.

However, for the modern web, HTML is a “descriptive markup” language. This looks to decouple the structure from the presentation aspects. HTML5 uses specific structural tags for this purpose:

<h1>Choosing an Apple</h1>
<section>
    <h2>Introduction</h2>
    <p>This document provides a guide to help with the important task of choosing the correct Apple.</p>
</section>

<section>
    <h2>Criteria</h2>
    <p>There are many different criteria to be considered when choosing an Apple — size, color, firmness, sweetness, tartness...</p>
</section>Code language: HTML, XML (xml)

Code source: Mozilla.

This doesn’t look any different to the previous HTML example on the frontend, but the backend adds further structure that helps search engines and the development process:

The front end of a HTML page showing different text and more structure.

A key point to note is that HTML works alongside other languages. In fact, it represents one of the “Holy Trinity” of web languages alongside Cascading StyleSheets (CSS) and JavaScript. While the former handles visual design choices, JavaScript has its own responsibilities on a modern website.

JavaScript

JavaScript has almost as long a history as HTML. Its development comes from Brendan Eich, who is currently the CEO of Brave Software (developers of the Brave browser,) and previously worked as the CEO for Mozilla. He developed JavaScript for the Netscape Navigator browser back in the mid 1990s.

JavaScript is a client-side scripting language, and another backbone of the web. While you can work with it inline (i.e., alongside HTML and CSS in the same file), most developers will use separate files and “call” JavaScript from HTML documents:

var myPets = "";
var pets = ["cat", "dog", "hamster", "hedgehog"];
for (var pet of pets){
    myPets += pet + " ";
} // myPets = 'cat dog hamster hedgehog Code language: JavaScript (javascript)

Code source: Learn X in Y Minutes.

This simple JavaScript snippet will print a simple list of pets to the screen:

The JavaScript console showing a snippet of JavaScript and the output of a list of pets.

In general, JavaScript isn’t as easy to read as HTML, and has much more complex use cases. For example, without it, we wouldn’t be able to create and browse dynamic websites. You’ll find most dynamic elements of a website’s frontend comes from JavaScript, such as popup ads, browser games, streaming functionality, and much more. The language is a workhorse of the web, and you can adapt it to almost any task, even backend work that you’d often use PHP for.

In fact, JavaScript is only one language among a whole host that conforms to a parent standard: ECMAScript. Another popular example of a language using that standard as its core is Google Apps Script.

However, despite the ubiquity of both languages, there are both positives and negatives for using them. Next, we’ll discuss them further.

The pros and cons of HTML and JavaScript

We’ll give you a quick spoiler: You can’t only learn one language. You’ll need both HTML and JavaScript in order to forge a successful career as a web developer. In fact, you’ll have to work around the pros and cons, as there is no real alternative to structure web content and make it dynamic [1].

Even so, it’s important to know where the strengths and weaknesses lie, as this will make you a better developer. First, here’s the lowdown on HTML:

  • You can learn HTML faster than almost any other language, as it’s simple to read and understand.
  • The language is a core fundamental of the web, so there’s lots of documentation and helpful tutorials available.
  • However, one reason it is straightforward is because of its limitations when it comes to tags and commands.
  • You won’t be able to add further interactivity or dynamic content without using another language.

In contrast, JavaScript is almost the antithesis of HTML:

  • You can use JavaScript to add as much dynamic and interactive content to a site as you need.
  • Because it executes within the web browser, you get instant feedback on whether it works or not.
  • However, this runtime execution requires good and optimal programming in order to perform well.
  • The language is much more complex than HTML and even CSS. This means you’ll need to take a lot longer to learn it before you can create good work.

In fact, this is a good time to compare HTML vs JavaScript on where you’ll use both. Let’s take a look at this next.

How you’ll use HTML and JavaScript within development

HTML and JavaScript work alongside each other. For instance, take a typical HTML document:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<body>
<h1>Hello World!</h1>
<p>Welcome to my website!</p>
</body>
</html>Code language: HTML, XML (xml)

This will produce a similar output to our previous HTML examples:

A simple Hello World HTML page.

To add JavaScript interactivity to this document, you’ll need to create and populate a new file, and call it from the HTML:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<head>
<script src="main.js"></script>
</head>
<body>Code language: HTML, XML (xml)

Right now, this doesn’t do anything on the frontend, as we don’t yet have any JavaScript code to run:

A browser page and a text editor showing how calling a script does nothing on the page.

Within the JavaScript file, you’ll work with the HTML tags as references to then place or control content within the main document:

function modalPopup() {  
       alert('This will display text as an on-click action'
       );  
    } Code language: JavaScript (javascript)

You can then build on this, maybe using HTML buttons, to see the addition straight away – a pop-up modal box that displays an alert:

A browser front-end showing a HTML page, a button, and a JavaScript alert on the screen.

This is a simple example, but you can use your browser’s Inspect Element tool to look at more complex applications. For instance, a button often uses JavaScript to run further code, which might trigger a popup that also uses JavaScript:

Inspecting a button on a website, showing the JavaScript code for an on-click action.

You’ll even be able to implement streaming and video functionality using JavaScript:

A YouTube video showing the Play JavaScript code.

The possibilities are wide, and the scope to develop has almost no limits when it comes to using both HTML and JavaScript together.

Where you can learn HTML and JavaScript

Because both HTML and JavaScript are fundamental web development languages, there are plenty of ways to learn them [2]:

  • Through books.
  • Using online courses.
  • Taking an in-person class.

Online resources have the best accessibility and cost in some cases. For instance, YouTube provides thousands of videos on learning web development. However, many developers who want to learn head to Udemy initially, as it has a wide range of courses for a reasonable cost [3].

A Udemy course front page for a HTML and CSS course.

For the absolute basics, O’Reilly’s books are fantastic, especially the Head-First series. However, you won’t want to rely on these for all of your knowledge (as they can offer dated practices at times.) Instead, they work as primers on the language that will see you creating something straight away, which you’ll then transfer to another book or course. Of course, both HTML and JavaScript have dedicated books to learn a specific language.

The Head First HTML and CSS book cover and blurb.

Once you have the core fundamentals in place, you’ll want to simply begin to code, as this can supercharge your learning experience. You’ll keep sites such as Stack Overflow and the technical documentation for a language open, as you’ll likely need to reference them and ask a lot of questions.

HTML vs JavaScript: career prospects

To sum up so far, you’ll want to learn with HTML and JavaScript in order to develop the frontend of websites, and there are plenty of resources available to do so. However, each developer will have different goals. Some will want to learn as a hobby, while others will look towards a career. As such, the comparison between HTML vs JavaScript deviates.

While there are a lot of developer types, you’ll split them into three broad types:

  • Frontend developers deal with how a website operates within the browser, using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.
  • Backend developers will use PHP, Python, and other languages to work with the databases and data traversal under the hood of a website. This could also include JavaScript with the right framework (more on that shortly.)
  • Full-stack developers work on both the front and backend at the same time.

Full-stack and backend developers account for the majority of professional web developers, according to Stack Overflow [4]. However, frontend developers still have demand, albeit less so. We’d argue that backend languages such as PHP can be more difficult to apply well, which means there’s a greater need for them.

What’s more, JavaScript is the most popular language for professional settings, although HTML sees almost as much usage. As a professional developer, jobs that involve each language start around $65,000 per year. And that’s on the lower end of the pay scale once you factor in a whole host of server-side and higher-level languages.

JavaScript frameworks

As we outlined earlier, there are no alternatives to HTML or JavaScript. However, when it comes to using JavaScript, not many developers will do so using the “vanilla” language. Instead, they’ll spend some time on choosing a dedicated “framework.” This will often make using JavaScript easier for the task at hand. Many frameworks have specific focuses, which means you’ll use different ones depending on the project.

For instance, Node.js lets you use JavaScript as a backend, server-side language. If you want to build a User Interface (UI,) React (or maybe Vue) will be the framework you’ll gravitate towards.

Code for the Vue framework to create a user interface for a counting function.

However, jQuery is the most popular JavaScript framework that the web uses [5]. In a nutshell, jQuery lets you traverse your HTML files with greater ease, and have greater access to event handling functionality, CSS animations, and more.

Much like learning both HTML and JavaScript, you’ll also want to learn and understand how the different JavaScript frameworks also interact with the language and bring new functionality to the table.

HTML vs JavaScript: a breakdown of the key differences

There is a lot to take in throughout this post. As such, here’s a quick overview of the primary differences between HTML vs JavaScript:

  HTML JavaScript
Definition and usage It’s a markup language that serves as the basis for website structure. It is a scripting language that lets you implement dynamic and interactive content on a website.
Content type Static language. Dynamic language.
Client- or server-side language Client-side (i.e., frontend.) Client-side, although a dedicated framework can add server-side (i.e., backend) functionality.
Cross-browser compatibility HTML works in every browser. JavaScript requires the right engine to run, so won’t work in every browser.
Integration You can’t embed HTML into other web development files. You’re able to code and run JavaScript inline with other files, such as HTML.
Extensibility You’re not able to extend HTML at all. JavaScript offers a number of frameworks and subsets that can enhance functionality and scope.

Given everything we go through here, you’ll likely want to know which language you should learn for web development. Let’s sum this up next.

HTML vs JavaScript: which one you should learn for development

It should be no surprise to learn that you’ll need both HTML and JavaScript to develop a modern website. Not only that, CSS will be important too, especially for frontend or full-stack developers. In fact, for the latter, you’ll also need to learn a language such as PHP, and have the skills to work with databases using Structured Query Language (SQL.)

Our advice is to start with HTML, as you can learn this fast and begin to create site structures you can understand. From there, while CSS will help you to add visual design to your site, JavaScript will help you create modern interactivity. In addition, you may want to learn jQuery, React, and Node too, as these will cover areas such as UI design, backend support, and better HTML traversal.

Conclusion 🤓

There are plenty of programming languages to learn, but only a handful that let you develop websites. While this article compares HTML vs JavaScript, you’ll need to learn both in order to make a career out of frontend web development.

However, JavaScript developers often earn more money due to the flexibility of the language: for instance, you could develop Google Apps Script products. Regardless, you’ll need to know HTML too, despite it being less flexible and adaptable.

Do you have any questions about HTML vs JavaScript, and which one would suit you better? Ask away in the comments section below!

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Tom Rankin

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