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Understanding Cascading Style Sheets

In this chapter, you will learn how to fine-tune the display of your web content using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).
This chapter is from the book

In the previous chapter, you learned the basics of HTML and XHTML, including how to set up a skeletal HTML template for all your web content. In this chapter, you will learn how to fine-tune the display of your web content using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

The concept behind style sheets is simple: You create a style sheet document that specifies the fonts, colors, spacing, and other characteristics that establish a unique look for a website. You then link every page that should have that look to the style sheet, instead of specifying all those styles repeatedly in each separate document. Therefore, when you decide to change your official corporate typeface or color scheme, you can modify all your web pages at once just by changing one or two entries in your style sheet rather than changing them in all of your static web files. So, a style sheet is a grouping of formatting instructions that controls the appearance of several HTML pages at once.

Style sheets enable you to set a great number of formatting characteristics, including exacting typeface controls, letter and line spacing, and margins and page borders, just to name a few. Style sheets also enable sizes and other measurements to be specified in familiar units, such as inches, millimeters, points, and picas. You can also use style sheets to precisely position graphics and text anywhere on a web page, either at specific coordinates or relative to other items on the page.

In short, style sheets bring a sophisticated level of display to the Web. And they do so—you’ll pardon the expression—with style.

How CSS Works

The technology behind style sheets is called CSS, which stands for Cascading Style Sheets. CSS is a language that defines style constructs such as fonts, colors, and positioning, which are used to describe how information on a web page is formatted and displayed. CSS styles can be stored directly in an HTML web page or in a separate style sheet file. Either way, style sheets contain style rules that apply styles to elements of a given type. When used externally, style sheet rules are placed in an external style sheet document with the file extension .css.

A style rule is a formatting instruction that can be applied to an element on a web page, such as a paragraph of text or a link. Style rules consist of one or more style properties and their associated values. An internal style sheet is placed directly within a web page, whereas an external style sheet exists in a separate document and is simply linked to a web page via a special tag—more on this tag in a moment.

The cascading part of the name CSS refers to the manner in which style sheet rules are applied to elements in an HTML document. More specifically, styles in a CSS style sheet form a hierarchy in which more specific styles override more general styles. It is the responsibility of CSS to determine the precedence of style rules according to this hierarchy, which establishes a cascading effect. If that sounds a bit confusing, just think of the cascading mechanism in CSS as being similar to genetic inheritance, in which general traits are passed from parents to a child, but more specific traits are entirely unique to the child. Base style rules are applied throughout a style sheet but can be overridden by more specific style rules.

A quick example should clear things up. Take a look at the following code to see whether you can tell what’s going on with the color of the text:

<div style="color:green">

  This text is green.

  <p style="color:blue">This text is blue.</p>

  <p>This text is still green.</p>


In the previous example, the color green is applied to the <div> tag via the color style property. Therefore, the text in the <div> tag is colored green. Because both <p> tags are children of the <div> tag, the green text style cascades down to them. However, the first <p> tag overrides the color style and changes it to blue. The end result is that the first line (not surrounded by a paragraph tag) is green, the first official paragraph is blue, and the second official paragraph retains the cascaded green color.

If you made it through that description on your own, congratulations. If you understood it after I explained it in the text, congratulations to you as well. Understanding CSS isn’t like understanding rocket science, although many people will try to convince you that it is (so that they can charge high consultation fees, most likely!).

Like many web technologies, CSS has evolved over the years. The original version of CSS, known as Cascading Style Sheets Level 1 (CSS1) was created in 1996. The later CSS 2 standard was created in 1998, and CSS 2 is still in use today. All modern web browsers support CSS 2, and you can safely use CSS 2 style sheets without too much concern. So when I talk about CSS throughout the book, I’m referring to CSS 2.

You’ll find a complete reference guide to CSS at http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/. The rest of this chapter explains how to put CSS to good use.

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