Better float containment in IE using CSS expressions

Research into improving the cross-browser consistency of both the “clearfix” and “overflow:hidden” methods of containing floats. The aim is to work around several bugs in IE6 and IE7.

This article introduces a new hack (with caveats) that can benefit the “clearfix” methods and the new block formatting context (NBFC) methods (e.g. using overflow:hidden) of containing floats. It’s one outcome of a collaboration between Nicolas Gallagher (that’s me) and Jonathan Neal.

If you are not familiar with the history and underlying principles behind methods of containing floats, I recommend that you have a read of Easy clearing (2004), Everything you know about clearfix is wrong (2010), and Clearfix reloaded and overflow:hidden demystified (2010).

Consistent float containment methods

The code is show below and documented in this GitHub gist. Found an improvement or flaw? Please fork the gist or leave a comment.

Micro clearfix hack: Firefox 3.5+, Safari 4+, Chrome, Opera 9+, IE 6+

.cf {
  /* for IE 6/7 */
  *zoom: expression(this.runtimeStyle.zoom="1", this.appendChild(document.createElement("br")).style.cssText="clear:both;font:0/0 serif");
  /* non-JS fallback */
  *zoom: 1;
}

.cf:before,
.cf:after {
  content: "";
  display: table;
}

.cf:after {
  clear: both;
}

Overflow hack (NBFC): Firefox 2+, Safari 2+, Chrome, Opera 9+, IE 6+

.nbfc {
  overflow: hidden;
  /* for IE 6/7 */
  *zoom: expression(this.runtimeStyle.zoom="1", this.appendChild(document.createElement("br")).style.cssText="clear:both;font:0/0 serif");
  /* non-JS fallback */
  *zoom: 1;
}

The GitHub gist also contains another variant of the clearfix method for modern browsers (based on Thierry Koblentz’s work). It provides greater visual consistency (avoiding edge-case bugs) for even older versions of Firefox.

The only difference from existing float-containment methods is the inclusion of a CSS expression that inserts a clearing line-break in IE 6 and IE 7. Jonathan and I found that it helps to resolve some of the visual rendering differences that exist between these browsers and more modern ones. First I’ll explain what some of those differences are and when they occur.

Containing floats in IE 6/7

In IE 6 and IE 7, the most common and robust method of containing floats within an element is to give it “layout” (find out more: On having Layout). Triggering “layout” on an element in IE 6/7 creates a new block formatting context (NBFC). However, certain IE bugs mean that previous float containment methods don’t result in cross-browser consistency. Specifically, this is what to expect in IE 6/7 when creating a NBFC:

  1. The top- and bottom-margins of non-floated child elements are contained within the ancestor element that has been given “layout”. (Also expected in other browsers when creating a NBFC)
  2. The bottom-margins of any right-floated descendants are contained within the ancestor. (Also expected in other browsers when creating a NBFC)
  3. The bottom-margins of any left-floated children are not contained within the ancestor. The margin has no effect on the height of the ancestor and is truncated, having no affect outside of the ancestor either. (IE 6/7 bug)
  4. In IE 6, if the right edge of the margin-box of a left-floated child is within 2px of the left edge of the content-box of its NBFC ancestor, the float’s bottom margin reappears and is contained within the parent. (IE 6 bug)
  5. Unwanted white-space can appear at the bottom of a float-container. (IE 6/7 bug)

There is a lack of consistency between IE 6/7 and other browsers, and between IE 6 and IE 7. Thanks to Matthew Lein for his comment that directed me to this IE 6/7 behaviour. It was also recently mentioned by “Suzy” in a comment on Perishable Press.

IE 6/7’s truncation of the bottom-margin of left-floats is not exposed in many of the test-cases used to demonstrate CSS float containment techniques. Using an IE-only CSS expression helps to correct this bug.

The CSS expression

Including the much maligned <br style="clear:both"> at the bottom of the float-container, as well as creating a NBFC, resolved all these inconsistencies in IE 6/7. Doing so prevents those browsers from collapsing (or truncating) top- and bottom-margins of descendant elements.

Jonathan suggested inserting the clearing line-break in IE 6/7 only, using CSS expressions applied to fictional CSS properties. The CSS expression is the result of many iterations, tests, and suggestions. It runs only once, the first time an element receives the associated classname.

*zoom: expression(this.runtimeStyle.zoom="1", this.appendChild(document.createElement("br")).style.cssText="clear:both;font:0/0 serif");

It is applied to zoom, which is already being used to help contain floats in IE 6/7, and the use of the runtimeStyle object ensures that the expression is replaced once it has been run. The addition of font:0/0 serif prevents the occasional appearance of white-space at the bottom of a float-container. And the * hack ensures that only IE 6 and IE 7 parse the rule.

It’s worth noting that IE 6 and IE 7 parse almost any string used as CSS property. An earlier iteration used the entirely fictitious properties “-ms-inject” or “-ie-x” property to exploit this IE behaviour.

*-ie-x: expression(this.x||(this.innerHTML+='&lt;br\ style="clear:both;font:0/0">',this.x=1));

However, this expression is evaluated over and over again. Using runtimeStyle instead avoids this. Sergey Chikuyonok also pointed out that using innerHTML destroys existing HTML elements that may event handlers attached to them. By using document.createElement and appendChild you can insert the new element without removing all the events attached to other descendant elements.

Containing floats in more modern browsers

There are two popular methods to contain floats in modern browsers. Creating a new block formatting context (as is done in IE 6/7 when hasLayout is triggered) or using a variant of the “clearfix” hack.

Creating a NBFC results in an element containing any floated children, and will prevent top- and bottom-margin collapse of non-floated children. When combined with the enhanced IE 6/7 containment method, it results in consistent cross-browser float containment.

The other method, known as “clearfix”, traditionally used a single :after pseudo-element to clear floats in a similar fashion to a structural, clearing HTML line-break. However, to prevent the top-margins of non-floats from collapsing into the margins of their float-containing ancestor, you also need to use the :before pseudo-element. This is the approach taken in Thierry Koblentz’s “clearfix reloaded”. In contemporary browsers, the micro clearfix hack is also suitable.

The method presented in this article should help improve the results of cross-browser float containment, whether you predominantly use “clearfix” or the NBFC method. The specific limitations of both the “clearfix” and various NBFC methods (as outlined in Thierry’s articles) remain.

Problems

Using a CSS expression to change the DOM in IE 6/7 creates problems of its own. Obviously, the DOM in IE 6/7 is now different to the DOM in other browsers. This affects any JavaScript DOM manipulation that may depend on :last-child or appending new children.

This is still an experimental work-in-progress that is primarily research-driven rather than seeking to become a practical snippet of production code. Any feedback, further testing, and further experimentation from others would be much appreciated.

Thanks to these people for contributing improvements: Jonathan Neal, Mathias Bynens, Sergey Chikuyonok, and Thierry Koblentz.

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