Introducing Cascading Style Sheets

A few years ago, when teaching about CSS, we would spend some time justifying why using stylesheets was a good idea, relative to other ways of achieving a specific layout in an HTML page. Some of the old ways are discussed in the chapter Content Style and Behaviour; luckily, the use of CSS is now mainstream and well supported in browsers and web authoring tools. This means that we can concentrate on what CSS does and how it can be used.

The core idea behind CSS is a language to define the visual properties of documents written in HTML (they can also apply to XML documents but for now, we won't worry about that). The visual properties that can be controlled range from the layout of the text on the page (screen) to the colours and fonts used to render the text. The language itself is very simple to understand; the complexity of CSS comes in the way that rules interact with each other in defining the whole layout of the page.

CSS Syntax

A CSS stylesheet consists of one or more 'rules' which define some visual properties of part of an HTML document. Each rule has two parts: a selector that defines which parts of the document will be affected and the body that lists the attributes that are to be changed. The syntax is as follows:

selector {
      property: value;
      property: value;

In the simplest case, the selector is the name of an HTML tag, this means that the rule will apply to every instance of that tag in the document. The properties must be taken from the defined set of CSS properties and the values must be legal values for the given property. A simple example of a rule that applies to all paragraph tags is:

p {
      font-size: larger;
      background-color: #ccc;
      border: 1px solid black;

The first property font-size defines the size of the font to be used, we give it the value larger which means the font should be larger than usual (we'll look at other possible values later). The second property defines the background colour of the paragraph; the value here is a hexadecimal RGB value, in this case corresponding to a shade of grey. The final property defines a border around the paragraph with a width of 1 pixel, drawn as a solid black line. From this example you'll see that different properties have different formats; you need to look at examples and at the documentation to understand how each one works.

Applying Stylesheets

A collection of CSS rules is called a stylesheet and the most common practice is to store these in a file with a .css extension which is then linked to the HTML pages on your site. However, there are a couple of other ways of including CSS in an HTML page so we'll go through the different options here.

In the most common case, we would store a collection of CSS rules in a file, say style.css, which will be stored on our web server and linked to each HTML page. The link is defined by the LINK tag in the HEAD of the HTML page:

    <link rel='stylesheet' type='text/css' href='style.css'>

The LINK tag is a way of defining a relationship between this HTML page and another resource on the web. The rel attribute defines what the relationship is and the href attribute contains the URL of the resource. The special relationship name stylesheet is interpreted by the web browser as a link to a stylesheet, the type attribute defines what kind of stylesheet it is (although CSS is really the only option). Note that the href attribute is interpreted in the same way as it is on a link within the HTML text (<a href="style.css">); in this case it is just a file name so is interpreted as a relative URL in the same directory on the server as the page itself. More generally you might use a site-relative URL (/static/style.css) or a full URL like

The advantage of linking a CSS stylesheet in this way is that the same stylesheet can be used for all pages on a site. Once the browser has downloaded the stylesheet for the first page, it won't have to do it again for subsequent pages. For this reason, this is by far the best way to use CSS in a web page. However, the HTML standards provide two other ways to include CSS in an HTML page itself and there are a small number of circumstances where this might be a reasonable thing to do.

The first method is to include explicit CSS rules in a STYLE element in the HEAD of the page:

    <style type='text/css'>
h1 {
   background-color: #CCFFCC;
p {
   font-size: smallest;

In this example we've defined two rules to apply to headings and paragraphs. This will have the same effect as including these rules in a linked CSS stylesheet. The disadvantages of this approach are that the CSS rules will only apply to this page - if they are intended to be site-wide then they need to be repeated in each page - and that the overall size of the HTML page is increased because of the included CSS.

This method of including CSS is justifiable in a few cases. If the CSS is specific to one single page then there is no disadvantage in having it in the page rather than a linked stylesheet. In fact, it will be more efficient to put it in the page to avoid the overhead of a second HTTP request. Having said that, it will be very uncommon for this to be the case on most websites, since we tend to be presenting similar content on multiple pages in a site. Another case might be where you don't have sufficent rights on the server to upload a separate CSS file; again, this would be a very unusual situation. The final justification for using this style of CSS is when you are learning CSS and want to try out different rules; it's often easier to play with a single HTML file and in this case, performance isn't an issue.

The third and final way to include CSS styling in an HTML page is to use the style attribute on an HTML tag. This attribute can contain one or more CSS properties and values which apply only to that element.

     <h1 style='color: yellow'>Example</h1>

These rules are the most specific and there are very few cases where their use is justified. The main use is where you want to apply some style rules but don't have control of the site-wide or in-page CSS. This can occur in some content management systems which allow pasting of content from Microsoft Word into web content. The formatting from Word can be converted to HTML formatting via appropriate CSS rules but the component that does the pasting (often an in-page editor such as TinyMCE or WYMEditor) can't modify the site-wide or page stylesheets to capture these styles. In these cases you will often see inline CSS used to style content.

The Cascade

Since there are three ways to include CSS styling for a particular element, there needs to be a way to decide which rule takes precedence if more than one rule applies. This is where the 'Cascade' in Cascading Style Sheets comes from. However, there are other sources of style information that the cascade also deals with; for example, a particular browser may let each user define their own stylesheet encoding their own preferences (for example, their preferred default font). The cascade rules define which rule actually applies to a given tag. While the detail is a bit more complicated, the basic rules are:

Any properties in the style attribute of an element has the highest priority Priority is then defined by how specific the rule is based on the selector If two rules have equal priority, the most recent rule will apply

  • The last STYLE or LINK element in the HEAD of a page takes priority
  • Within a stylesheet, later rules override earlier ones
  • Rules supplied by the author of a page take priority over user defined rules
  • User defined rules take priority over those defined by the web browser

This priority order generally matches what you'd expect; later rules generally take priority even if they are in different stylesheets.

There is one final mechanism that we can use to change the order of rules, that is to mark a rule as !important. An important rule beats any other rule that matches the same element in a page, even if it appears before the second rule. If both the author of the page and the user specifies an important rule, then the user wins. Here's an example of an important rule:

p {
  text-indent: 1.5em !important;
  font-size: larger;

In the example, the text-indent property is marked as important and would override any later rule for paragraphs. It would also override any user supplied stylesheet unless that was also marked as important.

Developing Stylesheets

The following sections describe some of the basic uses of CSS properties. It is by no means an exhaustive manual for CSS but is intended to introduce the basics such that you can get started writing stylesheets. As a reference a more complete list of CSS properties is included in this cheat sheet.

CSS Font Properties

One of the first things you might try in a stylesheet is to change the font of displayed text. There are a few properties that relate to the font which are illustrated in this example:

body {
  font-family: Ariel, Tahoma, sans-serif;
em {
  font-style: italic;
  font-weight: bold;
  font-size: larger;
strong {
  font-weight: bold;
  font-size: large;
p {
  font-size: 12pt; /* using absolute sizes is a bad idea */

To understand the effect of the font properties it is best to look in the reference guide at the different values that the property can take. For example, the font-weight property can take values like normal, bold, bolder, lighter, meaning that this property is used to switch between bold and normal fonts.

The font-family property defines the kind of font to be used; in this case we give some alternatives: Ariel if you have it, Tahoma if not and if you don't have either of these then use the standard sans-serif font configured in the browser. font-family is the only property that has this kind of value with alternatives. It is designed to cope with the common situation that the designers choice of font isn't installed on the target computer. Best practice is to always include at least one of the generic family names as the final alternative since these are guaranteed to be available in some form. The generic names are: serif, sans-serif and fixed. CHECK THIS

It is generally bad practice to use absolute sizes (eg. 12pt) for fonts in CSS stylesheets. The reason for this is that unlike in a printed document, these sizes don't have a fixed size on a computer screen - it will depend on the monitor resolution and the operating system settings of a particular device. Best practice then is to use named font sizes like large, huge, smaller which are interpreted relative to the default font size in the browser. This also means that if a user has configured their browser to use a larger font, the sizes in the stylesheet will be interpreted relative to this setting. Another alternative is to use a percentage value which define the font size relative to the default font for that element. So, if I define the font size for H1 headings to be 150% then it will appear 1.5 times as big as the default size for a top level header.

Colour and Background Properties

em {
  color: red;
  background-color: white;
strong {
  color: rgb(255,0,0);
  background-color: #CCFF00;
body {
  background-image: url(background.gif);
  background-repeat: repeat-y; /* repeat-x, no-repeat */
  background-attachment: fixed; /* scroll */

CSS Formatting Model

The CSS standard defines a way of laying out the content of a web page according to what is called the box model. In this model there are two main kinds of content in the page: inline and block. Inline content is something like the EM element which surrounds a span of text inside something like a paragraph. Block content is a paragraph, header or table that is normally displayed as a rectangular region in the page.

Each HTML element has a default display type (there are actually a few more than inline and block as we'll see later) but this can be changed with the display property in a CSS rule. The following example would display list items as inline content and anything marked up as CODE as a block:

li {
  display: inline;
code {
  display: block;

The box model applies to block content and defines a number of properties that affect the way that it is displayed. Essentially the whole HTML page is laid out as a series of nested blocks which by default are displayed one below another. Each box has three properties that define how the content is laid out relative to it's containing box and those that are next to it; these are: margin, border and padding and are illustrated in the diagram below.

diagram of the CSS block properties

Taking these properties from the inside out, the content is the innermost rectangular region, this is defined by the content of the element, for example the text of a paragraph or by an image. Around the content, but still on the inside of the block, is the padding which separates the content from the next part which is the border. The padding area takes on the same background properties as the content but the border can be coloured and styled separately: for example I can define a solid red border or a dashed green one. The outer region is the margin which is outside the block but defines the distance between the block and any neighbouring blocks or the block that contains this one. The margin region is not part of the block so it takes on the background properties of the parent block.

This is all a bit complicated to understand in the abstract so some examples might help clarify. The following example is the CSS rule used to define the layout of this page (as I write, it might change later of course).

body  {
    margin: auto;
    width: 90ex;
    background-color: white;
    padding: 1ex;
    border: 1px solid black;

Note that this rule applies to the BODY element which is the outermost element of the HTML page, hence it refers to the block that contains all of the other content in the page.

The first property defines the margin as auto which means that the margin will be set automatically to be given equal weight on all sides - effectively centering the block in the browser window. The next property defines the width of the block - without this the auto setting for the margin wouldn't have the desired effect because the block would take the width of it's parent. The width is measured in units of ex which is the width of a letter 'x' CHECK THIS, it is sometimes useful to use this unit as it scales with the font size used in the page.

The background-color property sets the colour that will appear behind the content in the body. The padding is set to 1ex meaning that there will be a space between the text content of any paragraphs and the border. The border property defines a one pixel solid black border around the entire block. So, we should see a gap of around one character width around the text, then a narrow black border all centered within the browser window with an overall width of around 90 characters.

The border property can be broken down into the separate properties of border-width, border-color and border-style (solid, dashed etc).

The margin, border and padding properties can also be defined for particular edges of the box. If I want a different margin above and below a paragraph I can use the margin-top and margin-bottom properties to define separate values. Similarly, padding-left, border-left or border-width-left define just the padding and border (or border width) on the left side of the box. Alternatively the individual widths can be defined in one property by specifying four numbers for the top, right, bottom and left widths, for example:

p {
  margin: 0px 10px 0px 10px;
  border-width: 1px 5px 1px 5px;

This example would define a ten pixel margin on the left and right of paragraphs with zero pixel margins at the top and bottom and a border of 1 pixel on the top and bottom and 5 pixels on the left and right.


selector { property: value;}
  • Element name, alone or in context:

    em { color: red }
    h1 em { color: blue}
    ul li { font-size: small}
    ul ul li { font-size: x-small }
  • Element id:

    #maintitle { background-color: blue }
  • Element with class attribute:

    .relaxed { color: green }
    .angry em { font-weight: bold }

Pseudo-classes and Pseudo-elements

Allow style to be applied to things that aren't marked up:

  • Anchor pseudo-classes:

    A:link { color: red }       /* unvisited link */
    A:visited { color: blue }   /* visited links */
    A:active { color: lime }    /* active links */
    A.external:visited { color: blue }
    <a class=external href="http://out.side/">external link</a>
  • Typographical pseudo-elements:

    p:first-line { font-variant: small-caps }
    p:first-letter { font-size: 200%; float: left }

Display Properties

These properties describe how the element should be displayed.

.paragraph { display: block; margin: 10px; }
.emphasis { display: inline; font-variant: italic; }
.menuentry {
        display: list-item;
        list-style-type: square;
.secret { display: none; }

CSS Page Layout

  • Most of the above relates to the style of text on the page. What about page layout.
  • On most sites we need to place various page elements: headings, navigation, content, advertising.
  • CSS provides the required level of control using float, width/height and position properties among others.
  • Examples of CSS layouts:, little boxes
  • css/edge has more advanced CSS examples
  • One goal is the liquid layout


  • HTML encodes the content of a web page.

  • CSS encodes the appearance of the page on the screen.

  • Avoids the need for HTML to be extended to include specific display elements (eg. <font> or <blink>)

  • Facilitates a consistent look and feel across a web site which can be easily updated.

  • CSS layouts promote: semantic markup, accessibility, efficiency.


  • An example HTML page which allows switching of stylesheets between W3C Core Styles.
  • Some sites promote the use of CSS: CSS Zen Garden
  • Most modern browsers support most of CSS1 and CSS2 but all browsers have bugs in their implementation. There are many sites on the web that summarise the compatibility of the main browsers, eg. WESTCIV or Quirksmode.

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