The names reveal what they are about: Transitional DOCTYPEs are meant for those making the transition from older markup to modern ways. Strict DOCTYPEs are actually the default – the way HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0 were constructed to be used.
A Transitional DOCTYPE may be used when you have a lot of legacy markup that cannot easily be converted to comply with a Strict DOCTYPE. But Strict is what you should be aiming for. It encourages, and in some cases enforces, the separation of structure and presentation, moving the presentational aspects from markup to CSS. From the HTML 4 Document Type Definition:
This is HTML 4.01 Strict DTD, which excludes the presentation attributes and elements that W3C expects to phase out as support for style sheets matures. Authors should use the Strict DTD when possible, but may use the Transitional DTD when support for presentation attribute and elements is required.
An additional benefit of using a Strict DOCTYPE is that doing so will ensure that browsers use their strictest, most standards compliant rendering modes.
Tommy Olsson provides a good summary of the benefits of using Strict over Transitional in Ten questions for Tommy Olsson at Web Standards Group:
In my opinion, using a Strict DTD, either HTML 4.01 Strict or XHTML 1.0 Strict, is far more important for the quality of the future web than whether or not there is an X in front of the name. The Strict DTD promotes a separation of structure and presentation, which makes a site so much easier to maintain.
For those looking to start using web standards and valid, semantic markup, it is important to understand the difference between Transitional and Strict DOCTYPEs. For complete listings of the differences between Transitional and Strict DOCTYPEs, see XHTML: Differences between Strict & Transitional, Comparison of Strict and Transitional XHTML, and XHTML1.0 Element Attributes by DTD.
Some of the differences are more likely than others to cause problems for developers moving from a Transitional DOCTYPE to a Strict one, and I’d like to mention a few of those.
Elements that are not allowed in Strict DOCTYPEs
Attributes not allowed in Strict DOCTYPEs
align(allowed on elements related to tables:
name(allowed in HTML 4.01 Strict, not allowed on
imgin XHTML 1.0 Strict)
Content model differences
An element type’s content model describes what may be contained by an instance of the element type. The most important difference in content models between Transitional and Strict is that
form elements may only contain block level elements. A few examples:
- text and images are not allowed immediately inside the body element, and need to be contained in a block level element like
inputelements must not be direct descendants of a
- text in
blockquoteelements must be wrapped in a block level element like
Go Strict and move all presentation to CSS
Something that can be helpful when doing the transition from Transitional to Strict DOCTYPEs is to focus on what each element of the page you are working on is instead of how you want it to look.
Worry about looks later and get the structure and semantics right first.