CSS 3 selectors explained

In September and October of 2005 I published a series of articles that explained the selectors that are available in CSS 2.1. A quick summary is that most of the selectors described in those articles can be used now in modern browsers like Mozilla/Firefox, Safari, and Opera. We just need to wait for Internet Explorer to catch up before we can start using the full power of CSS 2.1 selectors. The good news is that Internet Explorer will catch up, at least to some extent, with the release of version 7.

If we look a little further ahead, there are even more powerful selectors waiting to be implemented and used in CSS 3. Many of the CSS 3 selectors have already been implemented in modern browsers, but in general support is far too patchy for developers to rely on these new selectors. However, there are cases where they can be used to add nice forward enhancing features, so I think taking a look at how the new selectors in CSS 3 work can be useful.

In this article, the specification I am referring to is the Selectors W3C Working Draft 15 December 2005. The new selectors described in the document will be used by CSS level 3, but may also be used by other languages. If you are reading this article months, or even years after that date it may be worth checking if a more recent version is available.

I am not going to explain the basics of how CSS selectors in general work here. If you need a refresher, a good place to start is CSS 2.1 selectors, Part 1.

First, a quick overview of the selectors that are new in CSS 3:

Overview of CSS 3 selector syntax
Selector type Pattern Description
Substring matching attribute selector E[att^="val"] Matches any E element whose att attribute value begins with "val".
Substring matching attribute selector E[att$="val"] Matches any E element whose att attribute value ends with "val".
Substring matching attribute selector E[att*="val"] Matches any E element whose att attribute value contains the substring "val".
Structural pseudo-class E:root Matches the document's root element. In HTML, the root element is always the HTML element.
Structural pseudo-class E:nth-child(n) Matches any E element that is the n-th child of its parent.
Structural pseudo-class E:nth-last-child(n) Matches any E element that is the n-th child of its parent, counting from the last child.
Structural pseudo-class E:nth-of-type(n) Matches any E element that is the n-th sibling of its type.
Structural pseudo-class E:nth-last-of-type(n) Matches any E element that is the n-th sibling of its type, counting from the last sibling.
Structural pseudo-class E:last-child Matches any E element that is the last child of its parent.
Structural pseudo-class E:first-of-type Matches any E element that is the first sibling of its type.
Structural pseudo-class E:last-of-type Matches any E element that is the last sibling of its type.
Structural pseudo-class E:only-child Matches any E element that is the only child of its parent.
Structural pseudo-class E:only-of-type Matches any E element that is the only sibling of its type.
Structural pseudo-class E:empty Matches any E element that has no children (including text nodes).
Target pseudo-class E:target Matches an E element that is the target of the referring URL.
UI element states pseudo-class E:enabled Matches any user interface element (form control) E that is enabled.
UI element states pseudo-class E:disabled Matches any user interface element (form control) E that is disabled.
UI element states pseudo-class E:checked Matches any user interface element (form control) E that is checked.
UI element fragments pseudo-element E::selection Matches the portion of an element E that is currently selected or highlighted by the user.
Negation pseudo-class E:not(s) Matches any E element that does not match the simple selector s.
General sibling combinator E ~ F Matches any F element that is preceded by an E element.

If all that doesn't make much sense right now, don't worry. Each selector will be described in more detail in this article, and there are examples of how each selector can be used.

Substring matching attribute selectors

This whole group of selectors is new, and the selectors in it let developers match substrings in the value of an attribute.

Assume that you have an HTML document that contains the following markup structure:

  1. <div id="nav-primary"></div>
  2. <div id="content-primary"></div>
  3. <div id="content-secondary"></div>
  4. <div id="tertiary-content"></div>
  5. <div id="nav-secondary"></div>

By using the substring matching attribute selectors you can target combinations of these structural parts of the document.

The following rule will set the background colour of all div elements whose id begins with "nav":

  1. div[id^="nav"] { background:#ff0; }

In this case the selector will match div#nav-primary and div#nav-secondary.

To target the div elements whose id ends with "primary", you could use the following rule:

  1. div[id$="primary"] { background:#ff0; }

This time the selector will match div#nav-primary and div#content-primary.

The following rule will apply to all div elements whose id contain the substring "content":

  1. div[id*="content"] { background:#ff0; }

The elements that will be affected by this rule are div#content-primary, div#content-secondary, and div#tertiary-content.

The substring matching attribute selectors are all fully supported by the latest versions of Mozilla, Firefox, Flock, Camino, Safari, OmniWeb, and Opera, so if it wasn't for Internet Explorer we could start using them now.

The :target pseudo-class

URLs with fragment identifiers (an octothorpe, "#", followed by an anchor name or element id) link to a certain element within the document. The element being linked to is the target element, and the :target pseudo-class makes it possible to style that element. If the current URL has no fragment identifier, the :target pseudo-class does not match any element.

Assuming the HTML structure mentioned earlier in this document, the following rule would put an outline around div#content-primary when the URL contains that fragment identifier:

  1. div#content-primary:target { outline:1px solid #300; }

An example of such an URL is http://www.example.com/index.html#content-primary.

The :target pseudo-class is currently supported by browsers based on Mozilla and Safari.

UI element states pseudo-classes

The :enabled and :disabled pseudo-classes

The :enabled and :disabled pseudo-classes allow developers to specify the appearance of user interface elements (form controls) that are enabled or disabled, provided that the browser allows styling of form controls. The following rules will apply different background colours to single line text inputs depending on whether they are enabled or disabled:

  1. input[type="text"]:enabled { background:#ffc; }
  2. input[type="text"]:disabled { background:#ddd; }

The :checked pseudo-class

The :checked pseudo-class allows developers to specify the appearance of checked radio and checkbox elements. Again, this is provided that the browser allows styling of form controls. This CSS rule will apply a green border to checked radio and checkbox elements:

  1. input:checked { border:1px solid #090; }

The UI element states pseudo-classes are currently supported by Opera and browsers based on Mozilla.

Note that many web browsers restrict how much the appearance of form controls can be changed by web developers. More on that subject is available in my articles Styling form controls and Styling even more form controls.

Structural pseudo-classes

The structural pseudo-classes allow developers to target elements based on information that is available in the document tree but cannot be matched by other simple selectors or combinators. The structural pseudo-classes are very powerful, but unfortunately current browsers only support a few of them.

The :root pseudo-class

The :root pseudo-class targets the document's root element. In HTML, the root element is always the HTML element, which means that the following two rules are the same (well, almost - :root has a higher specificity than html):

  1. :root { background:#ff0; }
  2. html { background:#ff0; }

The :root pseudo-class is currently supported by browsers based on Mozilla and Safari.

The :nth-child() pseudo-class

The :nth-child() pseudo-class targets an element that has a certain number of siblings before it in the document tree. This argument, which is placed within the parentheses, can be a number, a keyword, or a formula.

A number b matches the b-th child. The following rule applies to all p elements that are the third child of their parent element:

  1. p:nth-child(3) { color:#f00; }

The keywords odd and even can be used to match child elements whose index is odd or even. The index of an element's first child is 1, so this rule will match any p element that is the first, third, fifth, and so on, child of its parent element:

  1. p:nth-child(odd) { color:#f00; }

The following rule matches p elements that are the second, fourth, sixth, and so on, child of their parent element:

  1. p:nth-child(even) { color:#f00; }

The formula an + b can be used to create more complex repeating patterns. In the formula, a represents a cycle size, n is a counter starting at 0, and b represents an offset value. All values are integers. Understanding how this works is easier when you look at a few code examples, so let's do that.

The following rules will match all p elements whose index is a multiple of 3. In the first rule, b is zero and could have been omitted, as in the second rule:

  1. p:nth-child(3n+0) { color:#f00; }
  2. p:nth-child(3n) { color:#f00; }

The offset value can be used to define at which child a repeating rule starts to apply. If you have a data table with 20 rows and want every odd row after the tenth row to have a different background colour, you can use this rule:

  1. tr:nth-child(2n+11) { background:#ff0; }

Since n starts at 0, the first tr element to be affected is the 11th. Next is the 13th, then the 15th, and so on.

More details are available in the :nth-child() pseudo-class section of the CSS 3 Selectors specification.

So, what about browser support for this very useful selector? Not good at all. As far as I can tell, no browser supports this or any of the other "nth" selectors. Please correct me if you know otherwise.

The :nth-last-child() pseudo-class

The :nth-last-child() pseudo-class works just like the :nth-child() pseudo-class, except that it targets an element that has a certain number of siblings after it in the document tree. In other words, it starts counting from the last child instead of the first, and counts backwards. The following rule will match the second-to-last tr element of a table:

  1. tr:nth-last-child(2) { background:#ff0; }

The :nth-last-child() pseudo-class is currently not supported by any browsers.

The :nth-of-type() pseudo-class

The :nth-of-type() pseudo-class works exactly like the :nth-child() pseudo-class, but only counts those elements that are of the same type as the element the rule is applied to. This rule will match every p element that is the third p element of its parent:

  1. p:nth-of-type(3) { background:#ff0; }

This can be useful if you want to make sure that you are really targeting the third p element. At first you might think that you could just as well use the nth-child pseudo-class, but :nth-child(3) will take all sibling elements into account, so the result will be different unless all p elements only have siblings that are also p elements.

The :nth-of-type() pseudo-class is currently not supported by any browsers.

The :nth-last-of-type() pseudo-class

The :nth-last-of-type() pseudo-class targets an element that has a certain number of siblings of the same element type after it in the document tree. Just like the :nth-last-child() pseudo-class, it starts counting from the last child instead of the first, and counts backwards. The following rule will match each second-to-last sibling of type p:

  1. p:nth-last-of-type(2) { background:#ff0; }

The :nth-last-of-type() pseudo-class is currently not supported by any browsers.

The :last-child pseudo-class

The :last-child pseudo-class targets an element that is the last child of its parent element. It is the same as :nth-last-child(1). This rule will match all p elements that are the last child of their parent element:

  1. p:last-child { background:#ff0; }

The :last-child pseudo-class works in browsers based on Mozilla. It is not supported by Opera and is buggy in Safari (the above rule matches all p elements in the document). Surprisingly it works as expected in OmniWeb (tested in version 5.1.1), despite that browser being based on Safari. That could be caused by a regression in the latest version of Apple WebKit, since OmniWeb is usually built on a slightly older version of WebKit than what Safari is using.

The :first-of-type pseudo-class

The :first-of-type pseudo-class targets an element that is the first sibling of its type. it is the same as :nth-of-type(1).

  1. p:first-of-type { background:#ff0; }

The :first-of-type pseudo-class is currently not supported by any browsers.

The :last-of-type pseudo-class

The :last-of-type pseudo-class targets an element that is the last sibling of its type. it is the same as :nth-last-of-type(1).

  1. p:last-of-type { background:#ff0; }

The :last-of-type pseudo-class is currently not supported by any browsers.

The :only-child pseudo-class

The :only-child pseudo-class targets an element whose parent element has no other element children. It is the same (but with a lower specificity) as :first-child:last-child or :nth-child(1):nth-last-child(1).

  1. p:only-child { background:#ff0; }

The :only-child pseudo-class works in browsers based on Mozilla. Safari seems to interpret it as :first-child (the above rule matches all p elements in the document that are the first child of their parent element).

The :only-of-type pseudo-class

The :only-of-type pseudo-class targets an element whose parent element has no other children of the same element type. It is the same (but with a lower specificity) as :first-of-type:last-of-type or :nth-of-type(1):nth-last-of-type(1).

  1. p:only-of-type { background:#ff0; }

The :only-of-type pseudo-class is currently not supported by any browsers.

The :empty pseudo-class

The :empty pseudo-class targets an element that has no children. That includes text nodes, so of the following elements, only the first is empty:

  1. <p></p>
  2. <p>Text</p>
  3. <p><em></em></p>

The following CSS rule will match that first element:

  1. p:empty { background:#ff0; }

The :empty pseudo-class is currently supported by browsers based on Mozilla. Safari erroneously applies the rule to all elements of the given element type.

The negation pseudo-class

The negation pseudo-class, written :not(s), takes a simple selector as an argument. It targets elements that are not targeted by the simple selector. For example, the following CSS will target any element that is not a p element:

  1. :not(p) { border:1px solid #ccc; }

The negation pseudo-class currently works in browsers based on Mozilla and Safari.

The ::selection pseudo-element

The ::selection pseudo-element matches the portion of an element that is currently selected or highlighted by the user. One possible use for this would be to control the appearance of selected text.

Only a few CSS properties apply to ::selection pseudo-elements: color, background, cursor, and outline.

The following rule will make the foreground colour of a selection red:

  1. ::selection { color:#f00; }

The ::selection pseudo-element currently only works in browsers based on Safari. The behaviour is a bit unpredictable, so the Safari implementation needs a bit of improvement. Mozilla based browsers support it if you use a -moz- prefix: ::-moz-selection. The prefix will probably be removed eventually.

The General sibling combinator

The general sibling combinator consists of two simple selectors separated by a "tilde" (~) character. It matches occurrences of elements matched by the second simple selector that are preceded by an element matched by the first simple selector. Both elements must have the same parent, but the second element does not have to be immediately preceded by the first element. This CSS rule will target ul elements that are preceded by a p element with the same parent:

  1. p ~ ul { background:#ff0; }

The general sibling combinator is currently supported by Opera and browsers based on Mozilla.

Better browser support wanted

Some CSS 3 selectors are widely supported. Unfortunately, some of the most useful selectors are either not supported at all or have very limited support in current browsers. That makes many of the selectors described in this article more or less useless on today's web. Don't be afraid to experiment though. You can still use those that are supported to provide forward enhancement to advanced browsers.

So, which browser do you think will be the first to support most or all CSS 3 selectors? Safari, Firefox, or Opera? Or maybe even Internet Explorer?

Translations

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Posted on January 10, 2006 in CSS