An introduction to CSS pseudo-element hacks

CSS is a versatile style language that is most frequently used to control the look and formatting of an HTML document based on information in the document tree. But there are some common publishing effects – such as formatting the first line of a paragraph – that would not be possible if you were only able to style elements based on this information. Fortunately, CSS has pseudo-elements and pseudo-classes.

As their names imply, they are not part of the DOM in the way that ‘real’ HTML elements and classes are. Instead, they are CSS abstractions that provide additional, and otherwise inaccessible, information about the document.

This article will discuss the CSS pseudo-elements that are part of CSS 2.1 – :first-letter, :first-line, :before, and :after – and how the :before and :after pseudo-elements can be exploited to create some interesting effects, without compromising the simplicity of your HTML. But first, let’s look at each type of pseudo-element and how to use them in their basic form.

The :first-line and :first-letter pseudo-elements

The :first-line pseudo-element lets you apply styles to the first formatted line of a block container element (i.e., elements with their display property set to block, inline-block, list-item, table-caption, or table-cell). For example:

p:first-line { font-weight: bold; }

…will change the first line of every paragraph to bold. The :first-line pseudo-element can be treated as if it were an extra HTML inline element wrapping only the first line of text in the paragraph.

The :first-letter pseudo-element lets you apply styles to the first letter (and any preceding punctuation) of the first formatted line of a block container element. No other inline content (e.g. an image) can appear before the text. For example:

p:first-letter { float: left; font-size: 200%; }

…will produce a basic ‘drop cap’ effect. The first letter of every paragraph will be floated left, and twice as large as the other letters in the paragraph. The :first-letter pseudo-element can be treated as if it were an extra HTML inline element wrapping only the first letter of text in the paragraph.

The :first-line and :first-letter pseudo-elements can only be attached to block container elements, but the first formatted line can be contained within any block-level descendant (e.g., elements with their display property set to block or list-item) in the same flow (i.e., not floated or positioned). For example, the following HTML fragment and CSS:

<div><p>An example of the first line of text being within a descendant element</p></div>

div:first-line { font-weight: bold; }

…would still result in a bold first line of text, because the paragraph’s text is the first formatted line of the div.

The :before and :after pseudo-elements

The :before and :after pseudo-elements are used to insert generated content before or after an element’s content. They can be treated as if they were extra HTML inline elements inserted just before and after the content of their associated element.

Generated content is specified using the content property which, in CSS 2.1, can only be used in conjunction with the :before and :after pseudo-elements. Furthermore, you must declare the content property in order to generate the :before and :after pseudo-elements.

The content property can take string, url(), attr(), counter() and counters() values. The url() value is used to insert an image. The attr() function returns as a string the value of the specified attribute for the associated element. The counter() and counters() functions can be used to display the value of any CSS counters.

For example, the following HTML fragment and CSS:

<a href="http://wikipedia.org">Wikipedia</a>

a:after { content: " (" attr(href) ")"; }

…would display the value of the href attribute after a link’s content, resulting in the following anchor text for the example above: Wikipedia (http://wikipedia.org). This can be a helpful way to display the destination of specific links in printed web documents.

Keep in mind that CSS is meant for adding presentation and not content. Therefore, the content property should be used with caution.

It’s also worth noting that the :first-letter and :first-line pseudo-elements apply to the first letter and first line of an element including any generated content inserted using the :before and :after pseudo-elements.

Browser support for pseudo-elements

The :first-letter and :first-line pseudo-elements were introduced in CSS1 and there is wide basic support for them. However, IE 6 and IE 7 have particularly buggy implementations; even modern browsers are not entirely consistent in the way that they handle the :first-line and :first-letter pseudo-elements (example bugs).

The :before and :after pseudo-elements were introduced in the CSS 2.1 specification and are fully implemented in Firefox 3.5+, IE 8+, Safari 3+, Google Chrome, and Opera. Modern versions of Firefox even support CSS transitions and animations applied to pseudo-elements. However, legacy browsers like IE 6 and IE 7 do not support the :before and :after pseudo-elements at all.

For more detailed information on pseudo-element browser support, browser bugs, and workarounds, have a look at Sitepoint’s reference and this article on IE 6/7 issues.

In most cases, the :before and :after pseudo-elements can be used as part of a ‘progressive enhancement’ approach to design and development, because IE 6 and IE 7 will simply ignore them altogether. Alternatively, Modernizr now includes a robust feature test for generated content, providing one way to specify fallbacks or enhancements depending on browser support. The important thing is to remember to check what happens in browsers where support is missing.

Alternative ways to use pseudo-elements

Let’s take a look at how the :before and :after pseudo-elements can be used as the basis for some interesting effects. Most of the time, this involves generating empty :before and :after pseudo-elements by declaring an empty string as the value of the content property. They can then be manipulated as if they were empty inline HTML elements, keeping your HTML clean and giving you full control of certain effects from within CSS style sheets.

Simple visual enhancements, like speech bubbles and folded corners, can even be created without the need for images. This relies on the fact that you can create simple shapes using CSS.

Several types of ‘CSS polygons’ can be created as a result of browsers rendering borders at an angle when they meet. This can be exploited to create triangles. For example, the following HTML fragment and CSS:

<div class="triangle"></div>

.triangle {
  width: 0;
  height: 0;
  border-width: 20px;
  border-style: solid;
  border-color: red transparent transparent;
}

…will create a downward pointing, red triangle. By varying the width, height, border-width, border-style, and border-color values you can produce different shapes and control their orientation and colour. For more information, be sure to read Jon Rogan’s summary of the technique.

The more advanced pseudo-element hacks use the extra background canvas afforded by each :before and :after pseudo-element. This can help you crop background images, control the opacity of background images, and ‘fake’ multiple backgrounds and borders in browsers without support for CSS3 multiple backgrounds (e.g., IE 8). Taken to ludicrous extremes, you can even build a whole CSS icon set. To start with, let’s look at some simple effects that can be created without images or presentational HTML.

Creating CSS speech bubbles

In this example, a quote is styled to look like a speech bubble, using CSS. This is done by creating a triangle using a pseudo-element, and then absolutely positioning it in the desired place. By adding position:relative to the CSS styles for the HTML element, you can absolutely position the :after pseudo-element relative to its associated element.

<div class="quote">[Quoted text]</div>

.quote {
  position: relative;
  width: 300px;
  padding: 15px 25px 20px;
  margin: 20px auto;
  font: italic 26px/1.4 Georgia, serif;
  color: #fff;
  background: #245991;
}

.quote:after {
  content: "";
  position: absolute;
  top: 100%;
  right: 25px;
  border-width: 30px 30px 0 0;
  border-style: solid;
  border-color: #245991 transparent;
}

There’s nothing stopping you from adding some CSS3 to further enhance the effect for capable browsers. This could be adding rounded corners to the box or applying a skew transform to the triangle itself. Fiddle with the code in this example.

Creating CSS ‘ribbons’

Using the same principle, you can create a CSS ribbon effect without images or extra HTML. This time the effect uses 2 pseudo-element triangles. The HTML fragment is still very simple.

<div class="container">
    <h1>Simple CSS ribbon</h1>
    <p>[other content]</p>
</div>

You then need to use negative margins to pull the h1 outwards so that it extends over the padding and beyond the boundaries of the container div. The HTML fragment above can be styled using the following CSS:

.container {
  width: 400px;
  padding: 20px;
  margin: 20px auto;
  background: #fff;
}

.container h1 {
  position: relative;
  padding: 10px 30px;
  margin: 0 -30px 20px;
  font-size: 20px;
  line-height: 24px;
  font-weight: bold;
  color: #fff;
  background: #87A800;
}

From here, you only need to add the pseudo-element triangles to create the ‘wrapping’ appearance associated with ribbons. The :before and :after pseudo-elements share many styles, so you can simplify the code by only overriding the styles that differ between the two. In this case, the triangle created with the :after pseudo-element must appear on the opposite side of the heading, and will be a mirror image of the other triangle. So you need to override the shared styles that control its position and orientation.

.container h1:before,
.container h1:after {
  content: "";
  position: absolute;
  top: 100%;
  left: 0;
  border-width: 0 10px 10px 0;
  border-style: solid;
  border-color: transparent #647D01;
}

/* override shared styles */
.container h1:after {
  left: auto;
  right: 0;
  border-width: 0 0 10px 10px;
}

Fiddle with the code in this example.

Creating CSS folded corners

The final example of this form of pseudo-element hack creates a simple CSS folded-corner effect. A pseudo-element’s border properties are set to produce two differently-coloured touching triangles. One triangle is a slightly darker or lighter shade of the box’s background colour. The other triangle matches the background colour of the box’s parent (e.g. white). The pseudo-element is then positioned in the top right corner of its associated element to complete the effect.

.note {
  position: relative;
  padding: 20px;
  margin: 2em 0;
  color: #fff;
  background: #97C02F;
}

.note:before {
  content: "";
  position: absolute;
  top: 0;
  right: 0;
  border-width: 0 16px 16px 0;
  border-style: solid;
  border-color: #658E15 #fff;
}

Varying the size of the borders will vary the size and angle of the folded-corner. Fiddle with the code in this example.

Pseudo background-crop

Although creating polygons with pseudo-elements can produce some popular effects without images, the possibilities are inherently limited. But this is only one type of :before and :after pseudo-element hack. Treated as extra background canvases, they can be used to fill some gaps in existing browser support for CSS features.

One of those features is the cropping of background images. In the future, it’s likely that you’ll be able to crop background images using fragment identifiers, as is proposed in the CSS Image Values Module Level 3 draft. But at the moment no browsers support the use of fragment identifiers with bitmap images. Until they do, you can make use of this CSS 2.1 hack to emulate background image cropping in modern browsers.

The principle behind a ‘pseudo background-crop‘ is to apply a background-image to a pseudo-element rather than directly to an element in the HTML document. One of the applications of this technique is to crop icons that are part of a sprite.

For example, a web app might allow users to ‘save’, ‘edit’, or ‘delete’ an item. The HTML involved might look something like this:

<ul class="actions">
  <li class="save"><a href="#">Save</a></li>
  <li class="edit"><a href="#">Edit</a></li>
  <li class="delete"><a href="#">Delete</a></li>
</ul>

To enhance the appearance of these ‘action’ links, it is common to see icons sitting alongside the anchor text. For argument’s sake, let’s say that the relevant icons are part of a sprite that is organised using a 16px × 16px grid.

The :before pseudo-element – with dimensions that match the sprite’s grid unit – can be used to crop and display each icon. The sprite is referenced as a background image and the background-position property is used to control the precise positioning of each icon to be shown.

.actions a:before {
  content: "";
  float: left;
  width: 16px;
  height: 16px;
  margin: 0 5px 0 0;
  background: url(sprite.png);
}

.save a:before { background-position: 0 0; }
.edit a:before { background-position: -16px 0; }
.delete a:before { background-position: -32px 0; }

Using pseudo-elements like this helps to avoid the need to either add liberal amounts of white space to sprites or use empty HTML elements to do the cropping. Fiddle with the code in this example.

Pseudo background-position

The CSS 2.1 specification limits the values of background-position to horizontal and vertical offsets from the top-left corner of an element. The CSS Backgrounds and Borders Module Level 3 working draft includes an improvement to the background-position property to allow offsets to be set from any side. However, Opera 11+ is currently the only browser to have implemented it.

But by using pseudo-elements, it’s possible to emulate positioning a background image from any side in any browser with adequate CSS 2.1 support –’pseudo background-position‘.

Once a pseudo-element is created, it must be absolutely positioned in front of the associated element’s background but behind its content, so as not to prevent users from being able to select text or click on links. This is done by setting a positive z-index on the element and a negative z-index on the pseudo-element.

#content {
  position: relative;
  z-index: 1;
}

#content:before {
  content: "";
  position: absolute;
  z-index: -1;
}

Now the pseudo-element can be sized and positioned to sit over any area within (or beyond) the element itself, without affecting its content. This is achieved by using any combination of values for the top, right, bottom, and left positional offsets, as well as the width, and height properties. It is the key to their flexibility.

In this example, a 200px × 300px background image is applied to the pseudo-element, which is also given dimensions that match those of the image. Since the pseudo-element is absolutely positioned, it can be offset from the bottom and right of the associated HTML element.

#content {
  position: relative;
  z-index: 1;
}

#content:before {
  content: "";
  position: absolute;
  z-index: -1;
  bottom: 10px;
  right: 10px;
  width: 200px;
  height: 300px;
  background: url(image.jpg);
}

Many other hacks and effects are possible using the :before and :after pseudo-elements, especially when combined with CSS3. Hopefully this introduction to pseudo-elements, and how they can be exploited, will have inspired you to experiment with them in your work.

The future of pseudo-elements

The way that pseudo-elements are used will continue to change as CSS does. Some new applications will emerge, and existing ones will fade away as browser implementation of ‘CSS3 modules’ continues to improve.

Generated content and pseudo-elements themselves are likely to undergo changes too. The CSS3 Generated and Replaced Content Module introduced a two-colon format for pseudo-elements (i.e., ::before) to help distinguish between pseudo-classes and pseudo-elements. But for compatibility with previous levels of CSS, pseudo-elements do not require two colons. Most modern browsers support both formats, but it is not supported by IE 8 and the single-colon format ensures greater backwards compatibility.

The proposed extensions to pseudo-elements included the addition of nested pseudo-elements (::before::before), multiple pseudo-elements (::after(2)), wrapping pseudo-elements (::outside), and the ability to insert pseudo-elements into later parts of the document (::alternate). However, the CSS3 Generated and Replaced Content Module is undergoing significant changes.

This article was originally published in .net magazine in April 2011

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