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CSS fundamentals: Selectors

joeattardi profile image Joe Attardi ・6 min read

One of the core concepts in CSS is that of selectors. A selector determines which element(s) a CSS rule applies to. There are several ways an element can be targeted with a selector.

CSS selectors can target multiple elements on the page. That is, a single CSS rule can apply to multiple elements. An element or class selector can select multiple different elements that have that class or element name.

Similarly, a single HTML element can be affected by multiple CSS rules.

Basic selector types

The universal selector

The universal selector, specified simply as an asterisk (*), matches all elements. This can be specified as a single selector, to select all elements in the document, or in combination with combinators (discussed below).

Element selectors

An element selector targets an HTML element by its element or tag name. The syntax of the selector is simply the name of the element.

p {
  margin: 25px;
}

In this example, all p elements on the page will have a margin of 25 pixels applied to them.

ID selectors

An HTML element can have an id attribute. As a general rule, there should only be one element with a given id. If there are multiple elements with the same id, only one of them will be targeted with an ID selector.

An ID selector is specified with the # character followed by the id value:

#header {
  padding: 25px;
}

The above selector will target the element with an id of header and give it a padding of 25 pixels.

<div id="header">...</div>

In general, the use of ID selectors should be avoided. Due to their tight coupling to a specific HTML element, they are not reusable. The CSSLint tool has a good explanation as to why you should avoid ID selectors, which can be read in full here: https://github.com/CSSLint/csslint/wiki/Disallow-ids-in-selectors

The explanation reads, in part:

For years, developers have treated IDs as the way to say "that thing!" However, IDs have a downside: they are completely unique and therefore cannot be reused. You could potentially style every element on your page with an ID selector but you would lose a lot of the benefit of CSS in the process.

One of CSS's benefits is the ability to reuse style rules in multiple places. When you start out with an ID selector, you're automatically limiting that style to a single element.

Class selectors

While only a single element can be targeted by an ID selector, any number of HTML elements can have the same class attribute. A class selector will match every element in the document with the given class. Class selectors are specified with a dot, followed by the name of the class.

.nav-link {
  color: darkcyan;
}

This rule will match every element with a class of nav-link and give it a color of darkcyan.

Attribute selectors

HTML elements can also be selected by their attribute values, or by the presence of an attribute. The attribute is specified inside square brackets, and the attribute selector can take several forms.

[attributeName]
Selects all elements that have the given attribute, regardless of its value.

[attributeName="value"]
Selects all elements that have the given attribute, whose value is the string value.

[attributeName*="value"]
Selects all elements that have the given attribute, whose value contains the string value.

[attributeName~="value"]
Selects all elements that have the given attribute, whose value contains the string value separated by whitespace.

[attributeName^="value"]
Selects all elements that have the given attribute, whose value begins with value.

[attributeName$="value"]
Selects all elements that have the given attribute, whose value ends with value.

Combining selectors

Any of the above selectors (with the exception of the universal selector) can be used alone or in conjunction with other selectors to make the selector more specific. This is best illustrated with some examples:

div.my-class
Matches all div elements with a class of my-class.

span.class-one.class-two
Matches all span elements with a class of both class-one and class-two.

a.nav-link[href*="example.com"]
Matches all a elements with a class of nav-link that have an href attribute that contains the string example.com.

A rule can also have multiple selectors separated by a comma:

.class-one, .class-two
Matches all elements with a class of class-one as well as all elements with a class of class-two.

Selector combinators

There's even more you can do with selectors. Combinators are used to select more specific elements. Combinators are used in conjunction with the basic selectors discussed above. For a given rule, multiple basic selectors can be used, joined by a combinator.

Descendant combinator

The descendant combinator matches an element that is a descendant of the element on the left hand side. Descendant means that the element exists somewhere within the child hierarchy - it does not have to be a direct child.

The descendant combinator is specified with a space character.

.header div
Matches all div elements that are direct or indirect children of an element with a class of header. If any of these divs have children that are also divs, those divs will also be matched by the selector.

Child combinator

The child combinator matches an element that is a direct child of the element on the left hand side. It is specified with a > character.

.header > div
Matches all div elements that are direct children of an element with a class of header. If those divs have children that are also divs, those divs will not be matched by the selector.

General sibling combinator

The general sibling combinator matches an element that is a sibling, but not necessarily an immediate sibling, of the element on the left hand side. It is specified with a ~ character.

Consider the following HTML:

<div>
  <div class="header"></div>
  <div class="body"></div>
  <div class="footer"></div>
</div>

The following selector would select both of the divs, with the class body or footer:

.header ~ div

Adjacent sibling combinator

The adjacent sibling combinator is similar to the general sibling combinator, except it only matches elements that are an immediate sibling. It is specified with a + character.

Looking again at the above HTML structure, the following selector would only select the div with the class body:

.header + div

Combining combinators

These combinators can be combined to form even more specific selectors, for example:

div.header > div + button

This selector matches a button element that is an immediate sibling of a div element, which in turn is an immediate child of a div with the class header.

Pseudo-classes

Another tool in the CSS selector toolbox is the pseudo-class. A pseudo-class allows you to select elements based on some special state of the element, in addition to all the selectors discussed above.

Some pseudo-classes let you select elements based on UI state, while others let you select elements based on their position in the document (with more precision than the combinators).

There are many pseudo-classes, but here are some of the more commonly used ones.

UI state

:hover
Matches an element that the mouse cursor is currently hovering over. This is typically used for buttons and links, but can be applied to any type of element.

:active
Matches an element that is currently being activated. For buttons and links, this usually means the mouse button has been pressed, but not yet released.

:visited
Matches a link whose URL has already been visited by the user.

:focus
Matches an element that currently has the focus. This is typically used for buttons, links, and text fields.

Document structure

:first-child
Matches an element that is the first child of its parent. Consider the following example HTML:

<ul class="my-list">
  <li>Item one</li>
  <li>Item two</li>
</ul>

The selector .my-list > li:first-child will match the first list item only.

:last-child
Matches an element that is the last child of its parent. In the above example, the selector .my-list > li:last-child will match the last list item only.

:nth-child()
Matches an element that is the nth child of its parent. The value of n is passed as a parameter to the pseudo-class. The index of the first child is 1. Going back to the example HTML above, we can also select "Item two" with the selector .my-list > li:nth-child(2).

This pseudo-class can even select children at a certain interval. For example, in a longer list, we could select every other list item with the selector .my-list > li:nth-child(2n). Or, we could select every four items with the selector .my-list > li:nth-child(4n). We can even select all odd-numbered children with the selector .my-list > li:nth-child(odd).

A complete list of pseudo-classes, including some that are still experimental, can be found at https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/CSS/Pseudo-classes.

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this useful, whether you're a CSS beginner or just someone looking for a refresher!

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