This primer is designed to provide the reader with the basic knowledge required to effectively use RDF. It introduces the basic concepts of RDF and shows concrete examples of the use of RDF. Secs. 3-5 can be used as a minimalist introduction into the key elements of RDF. Changes between RDF 1.1 and RDF 1.0 (2004 version) are summarized in a separate document: "What's New in RDF 1.1" [RDF11-NEW].

Status of This Document

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/.

This document is part of the RDF 1.1 document suite. It is an informative note on the key concepts of RDF. For a normative specification of RDF 1.1 the reader is referred to the RDF 1.1. Concepts and Abstract Syntax document [RDF11-CONCEPTS]. This document contains some minor editorial fixes of the Februay 2014 version.

This document was published by the RDF Working Group as a Working Group Note. If you wish to make comments regarding this document, please send them to public-rdf-comments@w3.org (subscribe, archives). All comments are welcome.

Publication as a Working Group Note does not imply endorsement by the W3C Membership. This is a draft document and may be updated, replaced or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to cite this document as other than work in progress.

This document was produced by a group operating under the 5 February 2004 W3C Patent Policy. W3C maintains a public list of any patent disclosures made in connection with the deliverables of the group; that page also includes instructions for disclosing a patent. An individual who has actual knowledge of a patent which the individual believes contains Essential Claim(s) must disclose the information in accordance with section 6 of the W3C Patent Policy.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

The Resource Description Framework (RDF) is a framework for expressing information about resources. Resources can be anything, including documents, people, physical objects, and abstract concepts.

RDF is intended for situations in which information on the Web needs to be processed by applications, rather than being only displayed to people. RDF provides a common framework for expressing this information so it can be exchanged between applications without loss of meaning. Since it is a common framework, application designers can leverage the availability of common RDF parsers and processing tools. The ability to exchange information between different applications means that the information may be made available to applications other than those for which it was originally created.

In particular RDF can be used to publish and interlink data on the Web. For example, retrieving http://www.example.org/bob#me could provide data about Bob, including the fact that he knows Alice, as identified by her IRI (an IRI is an "International Resource Identifier"; see Sec. 3.2 for details). Retrieving Alice's IRI could then provide more data about her, including links to other datasets for her friends, interests, etc. A person or an automated process can then follow such links and aggregate data about these various things. Such uses of RDF are often qualified as Linked Data [LINKED-DATA].

This document is not normative and does not give a complete account of RDF 1.1. Normative specifications of RDF can be found in the following documents:

2. Why Use RDF?

The following illustrates various different uses of RDF, aimed at different communities of practice.

3. RDF Data Model

3.1 Triples

RDF allows us to make statements about resources. The format of these statements is simple. A statement always has the following structure:

      <subject> <predicate> <object>

An RDF statement expresses a relationship between two resources. The subject and the object represent the two resources being related; the predicate represents the nature of their relationship. The relationship is phrased in a directional way (from subject to object) and is called in RDF a property. Because RDF statements consist of three elements they are called triples.

Here are examples of RDF triples (informally expressed in pseudocode):

Example 1: Sample triples (informal)
<Bob> <is a> <person>.
<Bob> <is a friend of> <Alice>.
<Bob> <is born on> <the 4th of July 1990>. 
<Bob> <is interested in> <the Mona Lisa>.
<the Mona Lisa> <was created by> <Leonardo da Vinci>.
<the video 'La Joconde à Washington'> <is about> <the Mona Lisa>

The same resource is often referenced in multiple triples. In the example above, Bob is the subject of four triples, and the Mona Lisa is the subject of one and the object of two triples. This ability to have the same resource be in the subject position of one triple and the object position of another makes it possible to find connections between triples, which is an important part of RDF's power.

We can visualize triples as a connected graph. Graphs consists of nodes and arcs. The subjects and objects of the triples make up the nodes in the graph; the predicates form the arcs. Fig. 1 shows the graph resulting from the sample triples.

Informal graphs of the sample triples
Fig. 1 Informal graph of the sample triples

Once you have a graph like this you can use SPARQL [SPARQL11-OVERVIEW] to query for e.g. people interested in paintings by Leonardo da Vinci.

The RDF Data Model is described in this section in the form of an "abstract syntax", i.e. a data model that is independent of a particular concrete syntax (the syntax used to represent triples stored in text files). Different concrete syntaxes may produce exactly the same graph from the perspective of the abstract syntax. The semantics of RDF graphs [RDF11-MT] are defined in terms of this abstract syntax. Concrete RDF syntax is introduced later in Sec. 5.

In the next three subsections we discuss the three types of RDF data that occur in triples: IRIs, literals and blank nodes.

3.2 IRIs

The abbreviation IRI is short for "International Resource Identifier". An IRI identifies a resource. The URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) that people use as Web addresses are one form of IRI. Other forms of IRI provide an identifier for a resource without implying its location or how to access it. The notion of IRI is a generalization of URI (Uniform Resource Identifier), allowing non-ASCII characters to be used in the IRI character string. IRIs are specified in RFC 3987 [RFC3987].

IRIs can appear in all three positions of a triple.

As mentioned, IRIs are used to identify resources such as documents, people, physical objects, and abstract concepts. For example, the IRI for Leonardo da Vinci in DBpedia is:

The IRI for an INA video about the Mona Lisa entitled 'La Joconde à Washington' in Europeana is:

IRIs are global identifiers, so other people can re-use this IRI to identify the same thing. For example, the following IRI is used by many people as an RDF property to state an acquaintance relationship between people:

RDF is agnostic about what the IRI represents. However, IRIs may be given meaning by particular vocabularies or conventions. For example, DBpedia uses IRIs of the form http://dbpedia.org/resource/Name to denote the thing described by the corresponding Wikipedia article.

3.3 Literals

Literals are basic values that are not IRIs. Examples of literals include strings such as "La Joconde", dates such as "the 4th of July, 1990" and numbers such as "3.14159". Literals are associated with a datatype enabling such values to be parsed and interpreted correctly. String literals can optionally be associated with a language tag. For example, "Léonard de Vinci" could be associated with the "fr" language tag and "李奥纳多·达·文西" with the "zh" language tag.

Literals may only appear in the object position of a triple.

The RDF Concepts document provides a (non-exhaustive) list of datatypes. This includes many datatypes defined by XML Schema, such as string, boolean, integer, decimal and date.

3.4 Blank nodes

IRIs and literals together provide the basic material for writing down RDF statements. In addition, it is sometimes handy to be able to talk about resources without bothering to use a global identifier. For example, we might want to state that the Mona Lisa painting has in its background an unidentified tree which we know to be a cypress tree. A resource without a global identifier, such as the painting's cypress tree, can be represented in RDF by a blank node. Blank nodes are like simple variables in algebra; they represent some thing without saying what their value is.

Blank nodes can appear in the subject and object position of a triple. They can be used to denote resources without explicitly naming them with an IRI.

Blank node example: cypress tree
Fig. 2 Informal blank node example: the background of the Mona Lisa depicts an unnamed resource that belongs to the class of cypress trees.

3.5 Multiple graphs

RDF provides a mechanism to group RDF statements in multiple graphs and associate such graphs with an IRI . Multiple graphs are a recent extension of the RDF data model. In practice, RDF tool builders and data managers needed a mechanism to talk about subsets of a collection of triples. Multiple graphs were first introduced in the RDF query language SPARQL. The RDF data model was therefore extended with a notion of multiple graphs that is closely aligned with SPARQL.

Multiple graphs in an RDF document constitute an RDF dataset. An RDF dataset may have multiple named graphs and at most one unnamed ("default") graph.

For example, the statements in Example 1 could be grouped in two named graphs. A first graph could be provided by a social networking site and identified by http://example.org/bob:

Example 2: First graph in the sample dataset
<Bob> <is a> <person>.
<Bob> <is a friend of> <Alice>.
<Bob> <is born on> <the 4th of July 1990>.
<Bob> <is interested in> <the Mona Lisa>.

The IRI associated with the graph is called the graph name.

A second graph could be provided by Wikidata and identified by https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Special:EntityData/Q12418:

Example 3: Second graph in the sample dataset
<Leonardo da Vinci> <is the creator of> <the Mona Lisa>.
<The video 'La Joconde à Washington'> <is about> <the Mona Lisa>

Below is an example of an unnamed graph. It contains two triples that have the graph name <http://example.org/bob> as subject. The triples associate publisher and license information with this graph IRI:

Example 4: Unnamed graph in the sample dataset
<http://example.org/bob> <is published by> <http://example.org>.
<http://example.org/bob> <has license> <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/>.

In this example dataset we assume graph names represent the source of the RDF data held within the corresponding graphs, i.e. by retrieving <http://example.org/bob> we would get access to the four triples in that graph.


RDF provides no standard way to convey this semantic assumption (i.e., that graph names represent the source of the RDF data) to other readers of the dataset. Those readers will need to rely on out-of-band knowledge, such as established community practice, to interpret the dataset in the intended way. Possible semantics of datasets are described in a separate note [RDF11-DATASETS].

Informal graph of the sample dataset
Fig. 3 Informal graph of the sample dataset

Fig. 3 depicts the sample dataset. Sec. 5.1.3 provides an example of concrete syntax for this dataset.

4. RDF Vocabularies

The RDF data model provides a way to make statements about resources. As we mentioned, this data model does not make any assumptions about what resource IRIs stand for. In practice, RDF is typically used in combination with vocabularies or other conventions that provide semantic information about these resources.

To support the definition of vocabularies RDF provides the RDF Schema language [RDF11-SCHEMA]. This language allows one to define semantic characteristics of RDF data. For example, one can state that the IRI http://www.example.org/friendOf can be used as a property and that the subjects and objects of http://www.example.org/friendOf triples must be resources of class http://www.example.org/Person.

RDF Schema uses the notion of class to specify categories that can be used to classify resources. The relation between an instance and its class is stated through the type property. With RDF Schema one can create hierarchies of classes and sub-classes and of properties and sub-properties. Type restrictions on the subjects and objects of particular triples can be defined through domain and range restrictions. An example of a domain restriction was given above: subjects of "friendOf" triples should be of class "Person".

The main modeling constructs provided by RDF Schema are summarized in the table below:

Table 1: RDF Schema Constructs
Construct Syntactic form Description
Class (a class) C rdf:type rdfs:Class C (a resource) is an RDF class
Property (a class) P rdf:type rdf:Property P (a resource) is an RDF property
type (a property) I rdf:type C I (a resource) is an instance of C (a class)
subClassOf (a property) C1 rdfs:subClassOf C2 C1 (a class) is a subclass of C2 (a class)
subPropertyOf (a property) P1 rdfs:subPropertyOf P2 P1 (a property) is a sub-property of P2 (a property)
domain (a property) P rdfs:domain C domain of P (a property) is C (a class)
range (a property) P rdfs:range C range of P (a property) is C (a class)

The syntactic form (second column) is in a prefix notation which is discussed in more detail in Sec. 5. The fact that the constructs have two different prefixes (rdf: and rdfs:) is a somewhat annoying historical artefact, which is preserved for backward compatibility.

With the help of RDF Schema one can build a model of RDF data. A simple informal example:

Example 5: RDF Schema triples (informal)
<Person> <type> <Class>
<is a friend of> <type> <Property>
<is a friend of> <domain> <Person>
<is a friend of> <range> <Person>
<is a good friend of> <subPropertyOf> <is a friend of>

Note that, while <is a friend of> is a property typically used as the predicate of a triple (as it was in Example 1), properties like this are themselves resources that can be described by triples or provide values in the descriptions of other resources. In this example, <is a friend of> is the subject of triples that assign type, domain, and range values to it, and it is the object of a triple that describes something about the <is a good friend of> property.

One of the first RDF vocabularies used worldwide was the "Friend of a Friend" (FOAF) vocabulary for describing social networks. Other examples of RDF vocabularies are:

Dublin Core
The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative maintains a metadata element set for describing a wide range of resources. The vocabulary provides properties such as "creator", "publisher" and "title".
Schema.org is a vocabulary developed by a group of major search providers. The idea is that webmasters can use these terms to mark-up Web pages, so that search engines understand what the pages are about.
SKOS is a vocabulary for publishing classification schemes such as terminologies and thesauri on the Web. SKOS is since 2009 a W3C recommendation and is widely used in the library world. The Library of Congress published its Subject Headings as a SKOS vocabulary.

Vocabularies get their value from reuse: the more vocabulary IRIs are reused by others, the more valuable it becomes to use the IRIs (the so-called network effect). This means you should prefer re-using someone else's IRI instead of inventing a new one.

For a formal specification of the semantics of the RDF Schema constructs the reader is referred to the RDF Semantics document [RDF11-MT]. Users interested in more comprehensive semantic modeling of RDF data might consider using OWL [OWL2-OVERVIEW]. OWL is an RDF vocabulary, so it can be used in combination with RDF Schema.

5. Writing RDF graphs

A number of different serialization formats exist for writing down RDF graphs. However, different ways of writing down the same graph lead to exactly the same triples, and are thus logically equivalent.

In this section we briefly introduce, through annotated examples, the following formats:

  1. Turtle family of RDF languages (N-Triples, Turtle, TriG and N-Quads);
  2. JSON-LD (JSON-based RDF syntax);
  3. RDFa (for HTML and XML embedding);
  4. RDF/XML (XML syntax for RDF).

Reading tip: Sec. 5.1 (Turtle et al.) discusses all basic concepts for serializing RDF. We suggest you read the sections on JSON-LD, RDFa and RDF/XML only if you are interested in that particular usage of RDF.

5.1 Turtle family of RDF languages

In this subsection we introduce four RDF languages which are closely related. We start with N-Triples, as it provides basic syntax for writing down RDF triples. The Turtle syntax extends this basic syntax with various forms of syntactic sugar to improve readability. Subsequently we discuss TriG and N-Quads, which are extensions respectively of Turtle and N-Triples to encode multiple graphs. Together, these four are referred to as the "Turtle family of RDF languages".

5.1.1 N-Triples

N-Triples [N-TRIPLES] provides a simple line-based, plain-text way for serializing RDF graphs. The informal graph in Fig. 1 can be represented in N-Triples in the following way:

Example 6: N-Triples
01    <http://example.org/bob#me> <http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#type> <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/Person> .
02    <http://example.org/bob#me> <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/knows> <http://example.org/alice#me> .
03    <http://example.org/bob#me> <http://schema.org/birthDate> "1990-07-04"^^<http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#date> .
04    <http://example.org/bob#me> <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/topic_interest> <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418> .
05    <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418> <http://purl.org/dc/terms/title> "Mona Lisa" .
06    <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418> <http://purl.org/dc/terms/creator> <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Leonardo_da_Vinci> .
07    <http://data.europeana.eu/item/04802/243FA8618938F4117025F17A8B813C5F9AA4D619> <http://purl.org/dc/terms/subject> <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418> .

Each line represents a triple. Full IRIs are enclosed in angle brackets (<>). The period at the end of the line signals the end of the triple. In line 3 we see an example of a literal, in this case a date. The datatype is appended to the literal through a ^^ delimiter. The date representation follows the conventions of the XML Schema datatype date.

Because string literals are so ubiquitous N-Triples allows the user to omit the datatype when writing a string literal. Thus, "Mona Lisa" in line 5 is equivalent to "Mona Lisa"^^xsd:string. In case of language-tagged strings the tag appears directly after the string, separated by a @ symbol, e.g. "La Joconde"@fr (the French name of the Mona Lisa).


For technical reasons the datatype of language-tagged strings is not xsd:string but rdf:langString. The datatype of language-tagged strings is never specified explicitly.

The figure below shows the triples resulting from the example:

Graph of the sample triples
Fig. 4 RDF graph resulting from the N-Triples example

Note that the seven lines in the N-Triples example correspond to the seven arcs in the diagram above.

N-Triples is often used for exchanging large amounts of RDF and for processing large RDF graphs with line-oriented text processing tools.

5.1.2 Turtle

Turtle [TURTLE] is an extension of N-Triples. In addition to the basic N-Triples syntax, Turtle introduces a number of syntactic shortcuts, such as support for namespace prefixes, lists and shorthands for datatyped literals. Turtle provides a trade-off between ease of writing, ease of parsing and readability. The graph shown in Fig. 4 can be represented in Turtle as follows:

Example 7: Turtle
01    BASE   <http://example.org/>
02    PREFIX foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/>
03    PREFIX xsd: <http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#>
04    PREFIX schema: <http://schema.org/>
05    PREFIX dcterms: <http://purl.org/dc/terms/>
06    PREFIX wd: <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/>
08    <bob#me>
09        a foaf:Person ;
10        foaf:knows <alice#me> ;
11        schema:birthDate "1990-07-04"^^xsd:date ;
12        foaf:topic_interest wd:Q12418 .
14    wd:Q12418
15        dcterms:title "Mona Lisa" ;
16        dcterms:creator <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Leonardo_da_Vinci> .
18    <http://data.europeana.eu/item/04802/243FA8618938F4117025F17A8B813C5F9AA4D619>
19        dcterms:subject wd:Q12418 .

The Turtle example is logically equivalent to the N-Triples example. Lines 1-6 contain a number of directives which provide shorthands for writing down IRIs. Relative IRIs (such as bob#me on line 8) are resolved against a base IRI, specified here in line 1. Lines 2-6 define IRI prefixes (such as foaf:), which can be used for prefixed names (such as foaf:Person) instead of full IRIs. The corresponding IRI is constructed by replacing the prefix with its corresponding IRI (in this example foaf:Person stands for <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/Person>).

Lines 8-12 show how Turtle provides a shorthand for a set of triples with the same subject. Lines 9-12 specify the predicate-object part of triples that have <http://example.org/bob#me> as their subject. The semicolons at the end of lines 9-11 indicate that the predicate-object pair that follows it is part of a new triple that uses the most recent subject shown in the data — in this case bob#me.

Line 9 shows an example of a special kind of syntactic sugar. The triple should informally be read as "Bob (is) a Person". The a predicate is a shorthand for the property rdf:type which models the instance relation (see Table 1). The a shorthand is intended to match the human intuition about rdf:type.

Representation of blank nodes

Below we see two syntactic variants for writing down blank nodes, using the earlier cypress tree example.

Example 8: Blank node
PREFIX lio: <http://purl.org/net/lio#> 

<http://dbpedia.org/resource/Mona_Lisa> lio:shows _:x .
_:x a <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Cypress> .

The term _:x is a blank node. It represents an unnamed resource depicted in the Mona Lisa painting; the unnamed resource is an instance of the Cypress class. The example above provides concrete syntax for the informal graph in Fig. 2.

Turtle also has an alternative notation for blank nodes, which does not require the use of syntax like _:x:

Example 9: Blank nodes (alternative notation)
@prefix foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/> .

# Some resource (blank node) is interested in some other resource
# entitled "Mona Lisa" and created by Leonardo da Vinci.

[] foaf:topic_interest [
          dcterms:title "Mona Lisa" ;
          dcterms:creator <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Leonardo_da_Vinci> ] .

Square brackets represent here a blank node. Predicate-object pairs within the square brackets are interpreted as triples with the blank node as subject. Lines starting with '#' represent comments.

For more details about the syntax of Turtle please consult the Turtle specification [TURTLE].

5.1.3 TriG

The syntax of Turtle supports only the specification of single graphs without a means for "naming" them. TriG [TRIG] is an extension of Turtle enabling the specification of multiple graphs in the form of an RDF dataset.


In RDF 1.1 any legal Turtle document is a legal TriG document. One could view it as one language. The names Turtle and TriG still exist for historical reasons.

The multiple-graphs version of our example can be specified in TriG as follows:

Example 10: TriG
01    BASE   <http://example.org/> 
02    PREFIX foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/> 
03    PREFIX xsd: <http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#> 
04    PREFIX schema: <http://schema.org/> 
05    PREFIX dcterms: <http://purl.org/dc/terms/> 
06    PREFIX wd: <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/> 
08    GRAPH <http://example.org/bob>
09      {
10        <bob#me>
11            a foaf:Person ;
12            foaf:knows <alice#me> ;
13            schema:birthDate "1990-07-04"^^xsd:date ;
14            foaf:topic_interest wd:Q12418 .
15      }
17    GRAPH <https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Special:EntityData/Q12418>
18      {
19        wd:Q12418
20            dcterms:title "Mona Lisa" ;
21            dcterms:creator <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Leonardo_da_Vinci> .
23        <http://data.europeana.eu/item/04802/243FA8618938F4117025F17A8B813C5F9AA4D619>
24           dcterms:subject wd:Q12418 .
25      }
27    <http://example.org/bob>
28        dcterms:publisher <http://example.org> ;
29        dcterms:rights <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/> .

This RDF dataset contains two named graphs. Lines 8 and 17 list the names of these two graphs. The triples in the named graph are placed in between matching curly braces (lines 9 & 15, 18 & 25). Optionally you can precede the graph name with the keyword GRAPH. This may improve readability, but it is mainly introduced for alignment with SPARQL Update [SPARQL11-UPDATE].

The syntax of the triples and of the directives at the top conforms to the Turtle syntax.

The two triples specified on lines 27-29 are not part of any named graph. Together they form the unnamed ("default") graph of this RDF dataset.

The figure below shows the triples resulting from this example.

Triples resulting from the TriG example
Fig. 5 Triples resulting from the TriG example

5.1.4 N-Quads

N-Quads [N-QUADS] is a simple extension to N-Triples to enable the exchange of RDF datasets. N-Quads allows one to add a fourth element to a line, capturing the graph IRI of the triple described on that line. Here is the N-Quads version of the TriG example above:

Example 11: N-Quads
01    <http://example.org/bob#me> <http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#type> <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/Person> <http://example.org/bob> .
02    <http://example.org/bob#me> <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/knows> <http://example.org/alice#me> <http://example.org/bob> .
03    <http://example.org/bob#me> <http://schema.org/birthDate> "1990-07-04"^^<http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#date> <http://example.org/bob> .
04    <http://example.org/bob#me> <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/topic_interest> <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418> <http://example.org/bob> .
05    <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418> <http://purl.org/dc/terms/title> "Mona Lisa" <https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Special:EntityData/Q12418> .
06    <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418> <http://purl.org/dc/terms/creator> <http://dbpedia.org/resource/Leonardo_da_Vinci> <https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Special:EntityData/Q12418> .
07    <http://data.europeana.eu/item/04802/243FA8618938F4117025F17A8B813C5F9AA4D619> <http://purl.org/dc/terms/subject> <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418> <https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Special:EntityData/Q12418> .
08    <http://example.org/bob> <http://purl.org/dc/terms/publisher> <http://example.org> .
09    <http://example.org/bob> <http://purl.org/dc/terms/rights> <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/> .

The nine lines in the N-Quads example correspond to the nine arcs in Fig. 5. Lines 1-7 represent quads, where the first element constitutes the graph IRI. The part of the quad after the graph IRI specifies the subject, predicate and object of the statement, following the syntactic conventions of N-Triples. Lines 8 and 9 represent the statements in the unnamed (default) graph, which lack a fourth element and thus constitute regular triples.

Like N-Triples, N-Quads is typically used for exchanging large RDF datasets and for processing RDF with line-oriented text processing tools.


JSON-LD [JSON-LD] provides a JSON syntax for RDF graphs and datasets. JSON-LD can be used to transform JSON documents to RDF with minimal changes. JSON-LD offers universal identifiers for JSON objects, a mechanism in which a JSON document can refer to an object described in another JSON document elsewhere on the Web, as well as datatype and language handling. JSON-LD also provides a way to serialize RDF datasets through the use of the @graph keyword.

The following JSON-LD example encodes the graph of Fig. 4:

Example 12: JSON-LD
01    {
02      "@context": "example-context.json",
03      "@id": "http://example.org/bob#me",
04      "@type": "Person",
05      "birthdate": "1990-07-04",
06      "knows": "http://example.org/alice#me",
07      "interest": {
08        "@id": "http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418",
09        "title": "Mona Lisa",
10        "subject_of": "http://data.europeana.eu/item/04802/243FA8618938F4117025F17A8B813C5F9AA4D619",
11        "creator": "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Leonardo_da_Vinci"
12      }
13    }

The @context key on line 2 points to a JSON document describing how the document can be mapped to an RDF graph (see below). Each JSON object corresponds to an RDF resource. In this example the main resource being described is http://example.org/bob#me, as specified on line 3, through the use of the @id keyword. The @id keyword, when used as a key in a JSON-LD document, points to an IRI identifying the resource corresponding to the current JSON object. We describe the type of this resource on line 4, its birth date on line 5 and one of its friends on line 6. From line 7 to 12 we describe one of its interests, the Mona Lisa painting.

To describe this painting we create a new JSON object on line 7 and associate it with the Mona Lisa IRI in Wikidata on line 8. We then describe various properties of that painting from line 9 to line 11.

The JSON-LD context used in this example is given below.

Example 13: JSON-LD context specification
01    {
02      "@context": {
03        "foaf": "http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/", 
04        "Person": "foaf:Person",
05        "interest": "foaf:topic_interest",
06        "knows": {
07          "@id": "foaf:knows",
08          "@type": "@id"
09        },
10        "birthdate": {
11          "@id": "http://schema.org/birthDate",
12          "@type": "http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#date"
13        },
14        "dcterms": "http://purl.org/dc/terms/",
15        "title": "dcterms:title",
16        "creator": {
17          "@id": "dcterms:creator",
18          "@type": "@id"
19        },
20        "subject_of": {
21          "@reverse": "dcterms:subject",
22          "@type": "@id"
23        }
24      }
25    }

This context describes how a JSON-LD document can be mapped to an RDF graph. Lines 4 to 9 specify how to map Person, interest and knows to types and properties in the FOAF namespace defined on line 3. We also specify on line 8 that the knows key has a value that will be interpreted as an IRI, through the use of the @type and @id keywords.

From line 10 to line 12 we map birthdate to a schema.org property IRI and specify that its value can be mapped to an xsd:date datatype.

From line 14 to line 23 we describe how to map title, creator and subject_of to Dublin Core property IRIs. The @reverse keyword on line 21 is used to specify that, whenever we encounter "subject_of": "x" in a JSON-LD document using this context, we should map it to an RDF triple which subject is the x IRI, which property is dcterms:subject and which object is the resource corresponding to the parent JSON object.

5.3 RDFa

RDFa [RDFA-PRIMER] is an RDF syntax that can be used to embed RDF data within HTML and XML documents. This enables, for example, search engines to aggregate this data when crawling the Web and use it to enrich search results (see, e.g., schema.org and Rich Snippets).

The HTML example below encodes the RDF graph depicted in Fig. 4:

Example 14: RDFa
01  <body prefix="foaf: http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/
02                   schema: http://schema.org/
03                   dcterms: http://purl.org/dc/terms/">
04    <div resource="http://example.org/bob#me" typeof="foaf:Person">
05      <p>
06        Bob knows <a property="foaf:knows" href="http://example.org/alice#me">Alice</a>
07        and was born on the <time property="schema:birthDate" datatype="xsd:date">1990-07-04</time>.
08      </p>
09      <p>
10        Bob is interested in <span property="foaf:topic_interest"
11        resource="http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418">the Mona Lisa</span>.
12      </p>
13    </div>
14    <div resource="http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418">
15      <p>
16        The <span property="dcterms:title">Mona Lisa</span> was painted by
17        <a property="dcterms:creator" href="http://dbpedia.org/resource/Leonardo_da_Vinci">Leonardo da Vinci</a>
18        and is the subject of the video
19        <a href="http://data.europeana.eu/item/04802/243FA8618938F4117025F17A8B813C5F9AA4D619">'La Joconde à Washington'</a>.
20      </p>
21    </div>
22    <div resource="http://data.europeana.eu/item/04802/243FA8618938F4117025F17A8B813C5F9AA4D619">
23        <link property="dcterms:subject" href="http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418"/>
24    </div>
25  </body>

The example above contains four special RDFa attributes to enable specification of RDF triples within HTML: resource, property, typeof and prefix.

The prefix attribute in line 1 specifies IRI shorthands in a similar fashion as the Turtle prefixes. Strictly speaking, these particular prefixes could have been omitted, as RDFa has a list of predefined prefixes which includes the ones used in this example.

The div elements in lines 4 and 14 have a resource attribute specifying the IRI about which RDF statements can be made within this HTML element. The meaning of the typeof attribute in line 4 is similar to the (is) a shorthand in Turtle: the subject http://example.org/bob#me is an instance (rdf:type) of the class foaf:Person.

In line 6 we see a property attribute; the value of this attribute (foaf:knows) is interpreted as an RDF property IRI; the value of the href attribute (http://example.org/alice#me) is interpreted here as the object of the triple. Thus, the RDF statement that results from line 6 is:

<http://example.org/bob#me> <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/knows> <http://example.org/alice#me> .

In line 7 we see a triple with as object a literal value. The property attribute is specified here on the HTML time element. HTML requires that the content of the time element should be some valid time value. By using the built-in HTML semantics of the time element RDFa can interpret the value as an xsd:date without an explicit datatype declaration.

In lines 10-11 we see the resource attribute also being used for specifying the object of a triple. This approach is used when the object is an IRI and the IRI itself is not part of the HTML content (such as an href attribute). Line 16 contains a second example of a literal ("Mona Lisa"), defined here as content of the span attribute. If RDFa cannot infer the datatype of the literal, it will assume the datatype to be xsd:string.

It is not always possible to define RDF statements as part of the HTML content of the document. In that case it is possible to use HTML constructs that do not render content to specify a triple. An example can be found on lines 22-23. The HTML link element on line 23 is used here to specify what the subject of the Europeana video (line 22) is.

The use of RDFa in this example is limited to RDFa Lite [RDFA-LITE]. For more information about RDFa please consult the RDFa Primer [RDFA-PRIMER].


RDF/XML [RDF-SYNTAX-GRAMMAR] provides an XML syntax for RDF graphs. When RDF was originally developed in the late 1990s, this was its only syntax, and some people still call this syntax "RDF". In 2001, a precursor to Turtle called "N3" was proposed, and gradually the other languages listed here have been adopted and standardized.

The RDF/XML example below encodes the RDF graph depicted in Fig. 4:

Example 15: RDF/XML
01    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
02    <rdf:RDF
03             xmlns:dcterms="http://purl.org/dc/terms/"
04             xmlns:foaf="http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/"
05             xmlns:rdf="http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#"
06             xmlns:schema="http://schema.org/">
07       <rdf:Description rdf:about="http://example.org/bob#me">
08          <rdf:type rdf:resource="http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/Person"/>
09          <schema:birthDate rdf:datatype="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#date">1990-07-04</schema:birthDate>
10          <foaf:knows rdf:resource="http://example.org/alice#me"/>
11          <foaf:topic_interest rdf:resource="http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418"/>
12       </rdf:Description>
13       <rdf:Description rdf:about="http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418">
14          <dcterms:title>Mona Lisa</dcterms:title>
15          <dcterms:creator rdf:resource="http://dbpedia.org/resource/Leonardo_da_Vinci"/>
16       </rdf:Description>
17       <rdf:Description rdf:about="http://data.europeana.eu/item/04802/243FA8618938F4117025F17A8B813C5F9AA4D619">
18          <dcterms:subject rdf:resource="http://www.wikidata.org/entity/Q12418"/>
19       </rdf:Description>
20    </rdf:RDF>

In RDF/XML RDF triples are specified within an XML element rdf:RDF (lines 2 and 20). The attributes of the rdf:RDF start tag (lines 3-6) provide a shorthand for writing down names of XML elements and attributes. The XML element rdf:Description (short for http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#Description) is used to define sets of triples that have as subject the IRI specified by the about attribute. The first description block (line 7-12) has four sub-elements. The name of the subelement is an IRI representing an RDF property, e.g., rdf:type (line 8). Here, each subelement represents one triple. In cases where the object of the triple is also an IRI the property subelement has no content and the object IRI is specified using the rdf:resource attribute (lines 8, 10-11, 15 and 18). For example, line 10 corresponds to the triple:

<http://example.org/bob#me> <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/knows> <http://example.org/alice#me> .

When the object of the triple is a literal the literal value is entered as content of the property element (lines 9 and 14). The datatype is specified as attribute of the property element (line 9). If the datatype is omitted (line 14) and no language tag is present the literal is considered to have the datatype xsd:string.

The example shows the baseline syntax; please consult the RDF/XML document [RDF11-XML] for a more in-depth treatment of the syntax. It might seem strange that the attribute values contain full IRIs, despite the fact that for some of these namespace prefixes were defined. This is because these prefixes can only be used for XML element and attribute names.

6. Semantics of RDF Graphs

An overarching goal in the use of RDF is to be able to automatically merge useful information from multiple sources to form a larger collection that is still coherent and useful. As a starting point for this merging, all the information is conveyed in the same simple style, subject-predicate-object triples, as described above. To keep the information coherent, however, we need more than just a standard syntax; we also need agreement about the semantics of these triples.

By this point in the Primer, the reader is likely to have an intuitive grasp of the semantics of RDF:

  1. The IRIs used to name the subject, predicate, and object are "global" in scope, naming the same thing each time they are used.
  2. Each triple is "true" exactly when the predicate relation actually exists between the subject and the object.
  3. An RDF graph is "true" exactly when all the triples in it are "true".

These notions, and others, are specified with mathematical precision in the RDF Semantics document [RDF11-MT].

One of the benefits of RDF having these declarative semantics is that systems can make logical inferences. That is, given a certain set of input triples which they accept as true, systems can in some circumstances deduce that other triples must, logically, also be true. We say the first set of triples "entails" the additional triples. These systems, called "reasoners", can also sometimes deduce that the given input triples contradict each other.

Given the flexibility of RDF, where new vocabularies can be created when people want to use new concepts, there are many different kinds of reasoning one might want to do. When a specific kind of reasoning seems to be useful in many different applications, it can be documented as an entailment regime. Several entailment regimes are specified in RDF Semantics. For technical descriptions of some other entailment regimes and how to use these with SPARQL, see [SPARQL11-ENTAILMENT]. Note that some entailment regimes are fairly easy to implement and reasoning can be done quickly, while others require sophisticated techniques to implement efficiently.

As a sample entailment, consider the following two statements:

    ex:bob foaf:knows ex:alice .
    foaf:knows rdfs:domain foaf:Person .

The RDF Semantics document tell us that from this graph it is legal to derive the following triple:

    ex:bob rdf:type foaf:Person .

The derivation above is an example of an RDF Schema entailment [RDF11-MT].

The semantics of RDF also tell us that the triple:

   ex:bob ex:age "forty"^^xsd:integer . 

leads to a logical inconsistency, because the literal does not abide by the constraints defined for the XML Schema datatype integer.

Note that RDF tools may not recognize all datatypes. As a minimum, tools are required to support the datatypes for string literals and language-tagged literals.

Unlike many other data modeling languages, RDF Schema allows considerable modeling freedom. For example, the same entity may be used as both a class and a property. Also, there is no strict separation between the world of "classes" and of "instances". Therefore, RDF semantics views the following graph as valid:

   ex:Jumbo rdf:type ex:Elephant .
   ex:Elephant rdf:type ex:Species .

So, an elephant can both be a class (with Jumbo as a sample instance) and an instance (namely of the class of animal species).

The examples in this section are just meant to give the reader some feeling about what the RDF Semantics brings you. Please consult [RDF11-MT] for a complete description.

7. RDF Data

RDF allows you to combine triples from any source into a graph and process it as legal RDF. A large amount of RDF data is available as Linked Data [LINKED-DATA]. Datasets are being published and interlinked on the Web using RDF, and many of them offer a querying facility through SPARQL [SPARQL11-OVERVIEW]. Examples of such datasets used in the examples above include:

A list of datasets available as Linked Data is maintained at datahub.io.

A number of vocabulary terms have become popular for recording links between RDF data sources. An example is the sameAs property provided by the OWL vocabulary. This property can be used to indicate that two IRIs point in fact to the same resource. This is useful because different publishers may use different identifiers to denote the same thing. For example, VIAF (see above) also has an IRI denoting Leonardo da Vinci. With the help of owl:sameAs we can record this information:

Example 16: Link between datasets
    owl:sameAs <http://viaf.org/viaf/24604287/> .

Such links can be deployed by RDF data-processing software, for example by merging or comparing RDF data of IRIs that point to the same resource.

8. More Information

This concludes our brief introduction into RDF. Please consult the references to get more detailed information. You might also want to take a look at the W3C Linked Data page.

A. Acknowledgments

Antoine Isaac provided many examples, including the different syntactic forms. Pierre-Antoine Champin provided one of the JSON-LD examples. Andrew Wood designed the diagrams. Sandro Hawke wrote the first part of the section on RDF semantics.

We are grateful for the comments provided by (in alphabetical order) Gareth Adams, Thomas Baker, Dan Brickley, Pierre-Antoine Champin, Bob DuCharme, Sandro Hawke, Patrick Hayes, Ivan Herman, Kingsley Idehen, Antoine Isaac, Markus Lanthaler, and David Wood.

The introduction of this document contains a number of sentences from the 2004 Primer [RDF-PRIMER]. For the rest the RDF 1.1 Primer is a completely new document.

B. Changes since the previous publication

C. References

C.1 Informative references

Manu Sporny, Gregg Kellogg, Markus Lanthaler, Editors. JSON-LD 1.0. 16 January 2014. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/json-ld/
Tim Berners-Lee. Linked Data. Personal View, imperfect but published. URL: http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkedData.html
Gavin Carothers. RDF 1.1 N-Quads. W3C Recommendation, 25 February 2014. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2014/REC-n-quads-20140225/. The latest edition is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/n-quads/
Gavin Carothers, Andy Seabourne. RDF 1.1 N-Triples. W3C Recommendation, 25 February 2014. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2014/REC-n-triples-20140225/. The latest edition is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/n-triples/
W3C OWL Working Group. OWL 2 Web Ontology Language Document Overview (Second Edition). 11 December 2012. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-overview/
Frank Manola; Eric Miller. RDF Primer. 10 February 2004. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf-primer/
Fabien Gandon; Guus Schreiber. RDF 1.1 XML Syntax. 25 February 2014. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf-syntax-grammar/
Richard Cyganiak, David Wood, Markus Lanthaler. RDF 1.1 Concepts and Abstract Syntax. W3C Recommendation, 25 February 2014. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2014/REC-rdf11-concepts-20140225/. The latest edition is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf11-concepts/
Antoine Zimmermann. RDF 1.1: On Semantics of RDF Datasets. W3C Working Group Note, 25 February 2014. The latest version is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf11-datasets/.
Patrick J. Hayes, Peter F. Patel-Schneider. RDF 1.1 Semantics. W3C Recommendation, 25 February 2014. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2014/REC-rdf11-mt-20140225/. The latest edition is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf11-mt/
David Wood. What’s New in RDF 1.1. W3C Working Group Note, 25 February 2014. The latest version is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf11-new/.
Dan Brickley, R. V. Guha. RDF Schema 1.1. W3C Recommendation, 25 February 2014. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2014/REC-rdf-schema-20140225/. The latest published version is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf-schema/.
Fabien Gandon, Guus Schreiber. RDF 1.1 XML Syntax. W3C Recommendation, 25 February 2014. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2014/REC-rdf-syntax-grammar-20140225/. The latest published version is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf-syntax-grammar/.
Manu Sporny. RDFa Lite 1.1. 7 June 2012. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/rdfa-lite/
Ivan Herman; Ben Adida; Manu Sporny; Mark Birbeck. RDFa 1.1 Primer - Second Edition. 22 August 2013. W3C Note. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/rdfa-primer/
M. Dürst; M. Suignard. Internationalized Resource Identifiers (IRIs). January 2005. RFC. URL: http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc3987.txt
Birte Glimm; Chimezie Ogbuji. SPARQL 1.1 Entailment Regimes. 21 March 2013. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/sparql11-entailment/
The W3C SPARQL Working Group. SPARQL 1.1 Overview. 21 March 2013. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/sparql11-overview/
Paula Gearon; Alexandre Passant; Axel Polleres. SPARQL 1.1 Update. 21 March 2013. W3C Recommendation. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/sparql11-update/
Gavin Carothers, Andy Seaborne. TriG: RDF Dataset Language. W3C Recommendation, 25 February 2014. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2014/REC-trig-20140225/. The latest edition is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/trig/
Eric Prud'hommeaux, Gavin Carothers. RDF 1.1 Turtle: Terse RDF Triple Language. W3C Recommendation, 25 February 2014. URL: http://www.w3.org/TR/2014/REC-turtle-20140225/. The latest edition is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/turtle/