CSS specificity

CSS: Specificity Wars

Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and geeks!

A few weeks back in Cupertino, I saw Aaron explain how the specificity of CSS selectors is calculated in a way which I hadn’t seen before. Then today I came across a knotty problem while building XHTML and CSS templates for a new project where two selectors behaved differently to how I expected and I realised that I had not completed my training.

The Dark Side

My problem was a simple one, how to feed a transparent PNG image to browsers which support transparency and a GIF image to older browsers which don’t, without resorting to hacks. Here’s the markup,

<div id="nav-supp">
<p><a id="a-02" href="#webstandards-org">Top</a></p>
<!-- etc. -->

and my CSS starting point.

a#a-02 { background-image : url(n.gif); }
a[id="a-02"] { background-image : url(n.png); }

I had assumed that a modern browser would see and apply both rules (with the second overriding the first) and that an older browser which does not understand attribute selectors would see and apply only the first, ignoring the second. I was wrong. Modern browsers did not apply the PNG image as I expected. The reason? A standard id selector wins over an attribute selector in terms of the cascade. Dagnammit! I know I should have read the specs, but somehow that particular pleasure had escaped me. If I had, I might have learned that;

ID selectors have a higher specificity than attribute selectors. For example, in HTML, the selector #p123 is more specific than [id=p123] in terms of the cascade.

Sith Lords

A little Googling uncovered some rather dry reading on the subject of selector specificity (resources below).

First, let’s look back at what Lord Elasticus (Patrick Griffiths) wrote on the subject of specificity (with one or two minor changes to fit our nefarious purpose).

You give every id selector (“#whatever”) a value of 100, every class selector (“.whatever”) a value of 10 and every HTML selector (“whatever”) a value of 1. Then you add them all up and hey presto, you have the specificity value.

  • p has a specificity of 1 (1 HTML selector)
  • div p has a specificity of 2 (2 HTML selectors; 1+1)
  • .sith has a specificity of 10 (1 class selector)
  • div p.sith has a specificity of 12 (2 HTML selectors and a class selector; 1+1+10)
  • #sith has a specificity of 100 (1 id selector)
  • body #darkside .sith p has a specificity of 112 (HTML selector, id selector, class selector, HTML selector; 1+100+10+1)

If all of these examples were used, div p.sith (with a specificity of 12) would win out over div p (with a specificity of 2) and body #darkside .sith p would win out over all of them, regardless of the order.

Darth (Gez) Lemon quotes the W3C.

A selector’s specificity is calculated as follows:

  • count the number of ID attributes in the selector (= a)
  • count the number of other attributes and pseudo-classes in the selector (= b)
  • count the number of element names in the selector (= c)
  • ignore pseudo-elements.

Concatenating the three numbers abc (in a number system with a large base) gives the specificity.

Too much! For me, the W3C really is in a galaxy far, far away!


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