OWL 2 Web Ontology Language
Document Overview

W3C Working Draft 27 March 2009

This version:
Latest version:
W3C OWL Working Group (see Acknowledgements)

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The OWL 2 Web Ontology Language, informally OWL 2, is an ontology language for the Semantic Web with formally defined meaning. OWL 2 ontologies provide classes, properties, individuals, and data values and are stored as Semantic Web documents. OWL 2 ontologies can be used along with information written in RDF, and OWL 2 ontologies themselves are primarily exchanged as RDF documents.

This document, part 1 of 13 in the OWL 2 document set, serves as an introduction to OWL 2 and the various other OWL 2 documents. It describes the various syntaxes for OWL 2, the different kinds of semantics, the defined profiles (sub-languages), and the differences between OWL 1 and OWL 2.

Status of this Document

May Be Superseded

This section describes the status of this document at the time of its publication. Other documents may supersede this document. A list of current W3C publications and the latest revision of this technical report can be found in the W3C technical reports index at http://www.w3.org/TR/.

First Public Working Draft

Given the complexity of the OWL specification (a dozen parts, not including this one), this document was produced to provide a starting point suitable for both implementors and users. In their next versions, all the other documents will link to it, prominently, as the starting place and home of the document Roadmap.

Please Comment By 10 April 2009

The OWL Working Group seeks public feedback on this First Public Working Draft. Please send your comments to public-owl-comments@w3.org (public archive). If possible, please offer specific changes to the text that would address your concern. You may also wish to check the Wiki Version of this document and see if the relevant text has already been updated.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction

Ontologies are formalized vocabularies of terms, often covering a specific domain and shared by a community of users. They specify the definitions of terms by describing their relationships with other terms in the ontology. OWL 2 is an extension and revision of the OWL Web Ontology Language developed by the W3C Web Ontology Working Group and published in 2004. OWL 2 is being developed (and this document was written) by a follow-on group, the W3C OWL Working Group. OWL and OWL 2 are designed to facilitate ontology development and sharing via the Web, with the ultimate goal of making Web content more accessible to machines.

2 Overview

Figure 1 gives an overview of the OWL 2 language, showing its main building blocks and how they relate to each other. The ellipse in the center represents the abstract notion of an ontology, which can be thought of either as an abstract structure or as an RDF graph (see 2.1 Ontologies). At the top are various concrete syntaxes (see 2.2 Syntaxes) that can be used to serialize and exchange ontologies. At the bottom are the two semantic specifications that define the meaning of OWL 2 ontologies (see 2.3 Semantics).

Note that many users of OWL 2 will need only one syntax and one semantics; for them, this diagram could be much simpler, with only their one syntax at the top, their one semantics at the bottom, and rarely a need to see what's inside the ellipse in the center.

Diagram showing that each syntax maps to/from ontologies and ontologies have two semantics
Figure 1. The Structure of OWL 2

Editor's Note: The exact nature of the GRDDL relation is not yet resolved.

2.1 Ontologies

The conceptual structure of OWL 2 ontologies is defined in the OWL 2 Structural Specification document [OWL 2 Structural Specification]. This document uses UML [UML] to define the structural elements available in OWL 2, explaining their roles and functionalities in abstract terms and without reference to any particular syntax. It also defines the functional-style syntax, which closely follows the structural specification and allows OWL 2 ontologies to be written in a compact form.

Any OWL 2 ontology can also be viewed as an RDF graph. The relationship between these two views is specified by the Mapping to RDF Graphs document [OWL 2 RDF Mapping], which defines a mapping from the structural form to the RDF graph form, and vice versa. The OWL 2 Quick Reference Guide [OWL 2 Quick Guide] provides a simple overview of these two views of OWL 2, laid out side by side.

2.2 Syntaxes

In practice, a concrete syntax is needed in order to store OWL 2 ontologies and to exchange them among tools and applications. The primary exchange syntax for OWL 2 is RDF/XML [RDF Syntax]; this is indeed the only syntax that must be supported by all OWL 2 tools (see Section 2.1 of the OWL 2 Conformance document [OWL 2 Conformance]).

While RDF/XML provides for interoperability among OWL 2 tools, other concrete syntaxes may also be used. These include alternative RDF serializations, such as Turtle [Turtle]; an XML serialization [OWL 2 XML]; and a more "readable" syntax used in several ontology editing tools [OWL 2 Manchester Syntax]. Finally, the functional-style syntax can also be used for serialization, although its main purpose is specifying the structure of the language [OWL 2 Structural Specification]. It must be emphasized, however, that OWL 2 tools are not required to support any of these alternative syntaxes.

Name of SyntaxSpecificationStatusPurpose
RDF/XML Mapping to RDF Graphs,
Mandatory Interchange (can be written and read by all conformant OWL 2 software)
OWL/XML XML Serialization Optional Easier to process using XML tools
Functional Syntax Structural Specification Optional Easier to see the formal structure of ontologies
Manchester Syntax Manchester Syntax Optional Easier to read/write DL Ontologies
Turtle Mapping to RDF Graphs,
Optional, Not from OWL-WG Easier to read/write RDF triples

2.3 Semantics

The OWL 2 Structural Specification document defines the abstract structure of OWL 2 ontologies, but it does not define their meaning. The Direct Semantics [OWL 2 Direct Semantics] and the RDF-Based Semantics [OWL 2 RDF-Based Semantics] provide two alternative ways of assigning meaning to OWL 2 ontologies, with a correspondence theorem providing a link between the two. These two semantics are used by reasoners and other tools to answer queries about, e.g., class consistency, subsumption and instance retrieval.

The Direct Semantics assigns meaning directly to ontology structures, resulting in a semantics compatible with the model theoretic semantics of the SROIQ description logic—a fragment of first order logic with useful computational properties. The advantage of this close connection is that the extensive description logic literature and implementation experience can be directly exploited by OWL 2 tools. However, some conditions must be placed on ontology structures in order to ensure that they can be translated into a SROIQ knowledge base, for example, transitive properties cannot be used in number restrictions (see Section 3 of the OWL 2 Structural Specification document [OWL 2 Structural Specification] for a complete list of these conditions). Ontologies that satisfy these syntactic conditions are called OWL 2 DL ontologies.

The RDF-Based Semantics assigns meaning directly to RDF graphs and so indirectly to ontology structures via the Mapping to RDF-graphs. The RDF-Based Semantics is fully compatible with RDF Semantics [OWL 2 RDF-Based Semantics], and extends the semantic conditions defined for RDF. The RDF-Based Semantics can be applied to any OWL 2 Ontology, without restrictions, as any OWL 2 Ontology can be mapped to RDF.

The correspondence theorem in Section 7.3 of the RDF-Based Semantics Document [OWL 2 RDF-Based Semantics]) defines a precise, close relationship between the Direct and RDF-Based Semantics. This theorem states, in essence, that given an OWL 2 DL ontology, inferences drawn using the Direct Semantics will still be valid if the ontology is mapped into an RDF graph and interpreted using the RDF-Based Semantics.

2.4 Profiles

OWL 2 Profiles [OWL 2 Profiles] are sub-languages (syntactic subsets) of OWL 2 that offer important advantages in particular application scenarios. Three different profiles are defined: OWL 2 EL, OWL 2 QL, and OWL 2 RL. Each profile is defined as a syntactic restriction of the OWL 2 Structural Specification, i.e, as a subset of the structural elements that can be used in a conforming ontology, and each is more restrictive than OWL DL. Each of the profiles trades off different aspects of OWL's expressive power in return for different computational and/or implementational benefits.

Venn Diagram showing DL as a subset of Full, and EL, QL, and RL as overlapping subsets of DL
Figure 2.Venn Diagram of OWL Syntactic Subsets (Profiles)

OWL 2 EL enables polynomial time algorithms for all the standard reasoning tasks; it is particularly suitable for applications where very large ontologies are needed, and where expressive power can be traded for performance guarantees. OWL 2 QL enables conjunctive queries to be answered using standard relational database technology; it is particularly suitable for applications where relatively lightweight ontologies are used to organize large numbers of individuals or where it is useful or necessary to access the data directly via relational queries (e.g., SQL). OWL 2 RL enables the implementation of polynomial time reasoning algorithms using rule-extended database technologies operating directly on RDF triples; it is particularly suitable for applications where relatively lightweight ontologies are used to organize large numbers of individuals or where it is useful or necessary to operate directly on data in the form of RDF triples.

Any OWL 2 EL, QL or RL ontology is, of course, also an OWL 2 ontology and can be interpreted using either the Direct or RDF-Based Semantics. When using OWL 2 RL, a rule-based implementation can operate directly on RDF triples and so can be applied to an arbitrary RDF graph, i.e., to any OWL 2 ontology. In this case, reasoning will always be sound (that is, only correct answers to queries will be computed), but it may not be complete (that is, it is not guaranteed that all correct answers to queries will be computed). Theorem PR1 of the Profiles document states, however, that (in general) when the ontology is consistent with the structural definition of OWL 2 RL, a suitable rule-based implementation performing ground atomic queries will be both sound and complete.

3 Differences between OWL 1 and 2

The 2004 version of OWL [OWL 1 Overview] (referred to hereafter as “OWL 1”) has a very similar overall structure to OWL 2. Looking at Figure 1, almost all the building blocks of OWL 2 were present in OWL 1, albeit under a possibly different name.

The central role of RDF/XML, the role of other syntaxes, and the relationships between the Direct and RDF-Based semantics (i.e., the correspondence theorem) have not changed. More importantly, the changes are backward compatible: all OWL 1 Ontologies remain valid OWL 2 Ontologies, with identical inferences (except in certain minor cases, detailed in 3.2 Modifications).

3.1 New Features

OWL 2 adds new functionality with respect to OWL 1. Some of the new features are syntactic sugar (e.g., disjoint union of classes) while others offer new expressivity, including:

The OWL 2 New Features and Rationale document [OWL 2 New Features and Rationale] describes all the new features of OWL 2, while the OWL 2 Quick Reference Guide [OWL 2 Quick Guide] provides an overview of the various OWL 2 features in general, clearly indicating those that are new.

The restrictions applicable to OWL DL have also been relaxed somewhat in OWL 2. Whereas, in OWL 1, there was a very strict separation between, for example, classes and individuals, OWL 2’s corresponding restrictions are a bit more relaxed. Under some circumstances the same identifier (i.e., URI) can be used to denote, for example, both a class and an individual while still maintaining the usability of Direct Semantics. In other words, the set of RDF Graphs that can also be handled by Description Logics reasoners has become a bit larger in OWL 2 compared to OWL 1.

3.2 Modifications

Editor's Note: This section will be filled in, in a later draft, to enumerate all the cases where an OWL 1 ontology will have different semantics in OWL 2. The narrowness of the cases is expected to underscore the degree to which OWL 2 is substantially compatible with OWL 1.

4 Documentation Roadmap

The OWL 2 ontology language is normatively defined by five core specification documents describing its conceptual structure, primary exchange syntax (RDF/XML), two alternative semantics (Direct and RDF-Based), and conformance requirements. Three additional specification documents describe optional features that may be supported by some implementations: the language profiles, and two alternative concrete syntaxes (XML and Manchester).

These documents are, however, all rather technical and mainly aimed at OWL 2 implementers and tool developers. Those looking for a more approachable guide to the features and usage of OWL 2 may prefer to consult one of the user documents (Primer, New Features and Rationale, and Quick Reference Guide).

5 Acknowledgements

The regular attendees at meetings of the OWL Working Group at the time of publication of this document were: Jie Bao (RPI), Diego Calvanese (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano), Bernardo Cuenca Grau (Oxford University), Martin Dzbor (Open University), Achille Fokoue (IBM Corporation), Christine Golbreich (Université de Versailles St-Quentin), Sandro Hawke (W3C/MIT), Ivan Herman (W3C/ERCIM), Rinke Hoekstra (University of Amsterdam), Ian Horrocks (Oxford University), Elisa Kendall (Sandpiper Software), Markus Krötzsch (FZI), Carsten Lutz (Universität Bremen), Deborah L. McGuinness (RPI), Boris Motik (Oxford University), Jeff Pan (University of Aberdeen), Bijan Parsia (University of Manchester), Peter F. Patel-Schneider (Bell Labs Research, Alcatel-Lucent), Alan Ruttenberg (Science Commons), Uli Sattler (University of Manchester), Michael Schneider (FZI), Mike Smith (Clark & Parsia), Evan Wallace (NIST), and Zhe Wu (Oracle Corporation). We would also like to thank past members of the working group: Jeremy Carroll, Jim Hendler, Vipul Kashyap.

6 References

[OWL 1 Overview]
OWL Web Ontology Language Overview, Deborah L. McGuinness, Frank van Harmelen, eds. W3C Recommendation, 10 February 2004, http://www.w3.org/TR/2004/REC-owl-features-20040210/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl-features/.
[OWL 1 Semantics]
OWL Web Ontology Language Semantics and Abstract Syntax, Patrick Hayes, Ian Horrocks, Peter F. Patel-Schneider, eds. W3C Recommendation, 10 February 2004, http://www.w3.org/TR/2004/REC-owl-semantics-20040210/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl-semantics/.
[OWL 1 XML Syntax]
OWL Web Ontology Language XML Presentation Syntax, Masahiro Hori, Jérôme Euzenat, Peter F. Patel-Schneider, eds. W3C Note, 11 June 2003, http://www.w3.org/TR/2003/NOTE-owl-xmlsyntax-20030611/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl-xmlsyntax/.
[OWL 2 Conformance]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:Conformance and Test Cases, Ian Horrocks, Michael Smith, Markus Krötzsch, eds. W3C Last Call Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-test-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-test/.
[OWL 2 Direct Semantics]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:Direct Semantics, Peter F. Patel-Schneider, Bernardo Cuenca Grau, Boris Motik, eds. W3C Last Call Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-semantics-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-semantics/.
[OWL 2 Manchester Syntax]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:Manchester Syntax, Peter F. Patel-Schneider, Matthew Horridge, eds. W3C Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-manchester-syntax-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-manchester-syntax/.
[OWL 2 New Features and Rationale]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:New Features and Rationale, Evan K. Wallace, Christine Golbreich, eds. W3C Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-new-features-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-new-features/.
[OWL 2 Profiles]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:Profiles, Carsten Lutz, Bernardo Cuenca Grau, Boris Motik, Ian Horrocks, Zhe Wu, Achille Fokoue, eds. W3C Last Call Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-profiles-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-profiles/.
[OWL 2 Quick Guide]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:Quick Reference Guide, Elisa F. Kendall, Jie Bao, Evan K. Wallace, Deborah L. McGuinness, eds. W3C Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-quick-reference-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-quick-reference/.
[OWL 2 RDF Mapping]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:Mapping to RDF Graphs, Boris Motik, Peter F. Patel-Schneider, eds. W3C Last Call Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-mapping-to-rdf-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-mapping-to-rdf/.
[OWL 2 RDF-Based Semantics]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:RDF-Based Semantics, Michael Schneider, editor. W3C Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-rdf-based-semantics-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-rdf-based-semantics/.
[OWL 2 Structural Specification]
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:Structural Specification and Functional-Style Syntax, Peter F. Patel-Schneider, Bijan Parsia, Boris Motik, eds. W3C Last Call Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-syntax-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-syntax/.
OWL 2 Web Ontology Language:XML Serialization, Peter Patel-Schneider, Boris Motik, eds. W3C Last Call Working Draft, 2 December 2008, http://www.w3.org/TR/2008/WD-owl2-xml-serialization-20081202/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-xml-serialization/.
[RDF Syntax]
RDF/XML Syntax Specification (Revised), Dave Beckett, editor. W3C Recommendation, 10 February 2004, http://www.w3.org/TR/2004/REC-rdf-syntax-grammar-20040210/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf-syntax-grammar.
Turtle - Terse RDF Triple Language. Dave Beckett and Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Team Submission 14 January 2008, http://www.w3.org/TeamSubmission/2008/SUBM-turtle-20080114/. Latest version available at http://www.w3.org/TeamSubmission/turtle/.
OMG Unified Modeling Language (OMG UML), Infrastructure V2.1.2. Object Management Group, OMG Available Specification November 2007.