Journal tags: cascade



Cascading Style Sheets

There are three ways—that I know of—to associate styles with markup.

External CSS

This is probably the most common. Using a link element with a rel value of “stylesheet”, you point to a URL using the href attribute. That URL is a style sheet that is applied to the current document (“the relationship of the linked resource it is that is a ‘stylesheet’ for the current document”).

<link rel="stylesheet" href="/path/to/styles.css">

In theory you could associate a style sheet with a document using an HTTP header, but I don’t think many browsers support this in practice.

You can also pull in external style sheets using the @import declaration in CSS itself, as long as the @import rule is declared at the start, before any other styles.

@import url('/path/to/more-styles.css');

When you use link rel="stylesheet" to apply styles, it’s a blocking request: the browser will fetch the style sheet before rendering the HTML. It needs to know how the HTML elements will be painted to the screen so there’s no point rendering the HTML until the CSS is parsed.

Embedded CSS

You can also place CSS rules inside a style element directly in the document. This is usually in the head of the document.

element {
    property: value;

When you embed CSS in the head of a document like this, there is no network request like there would be with external style sheets so there’s no render-blocking behaviour.

You can put any CSS inside the style element, which means that you could use embedded CSS to load external CSS using an @import statement (as long as that @import statement appears right at the start).

@import url('/path/to/more-styles.css');
element {
    property: value;

But then you’re back to having a network request.

Inline CSS

Using the style attribute you can apply CSS rules directly to an element. This is a universal attribute. It can be used on any HTML element. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the styles will work, but your markup is never invalidated by the presence of the style attribute.

<element style="property: value">

Whereas external CSS and embedded CSS don’t have any effect on specificity, inline styles are positively radioactive with specificity. Any styles applied this way are almost certain to over-ride any external or embedded styles.

You can also apply styles using JavaScript and the Document Object Model. = 'value';

Using the DOM style object this way is equivalent to inline styles. The radioactive specificity applies here too.

Style declarations specified in external style sheets or embedded CSS follow the rules of the cascade. Values can be over-ridden depending on the order they appear in. Combined with the separate-but-related rules for specificity, this can be very powerful. But if you don’t understand how the cascade and specificity work then the results can be unexpected, leading to frustration. In that situation, inline styles look very appealing—there’s no cascade and everything has equal specificity. But using inline styles means foregoing a lot of power—you’d be ditching the C in CSS.

A common technique for web performance is to favour embedded CSS over external CSS in order to avoid the extra network request (at least for the first visit—there are clever techniques for caching an external style sheet once the HTML has already loaded). This is commonly referred to as inlining your CSS. But really it should be called embedding your CSS.

This language mix-up is not a hill I’m going to die on (that hill would be referring to blog posts as blogs) but I thought it was worth pointing out.

CSS custom properties and the cascade

When I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions I said this about the brilliant Lea Verou:

As so often happens when I’m reading something written by Lea—or seeing her give a talk—light bulbs started popping over my head (my usual response to Lea’s knowledge bombs is either “I didn’t know you could do that!” or “I never thought of doing that!”).

Well, it happened again. This time I was reading her post about hybrid positioning with CSS variables and max() . But the main topic of the post wasn’t the part that made go “Huh! I never knew that!”. Towards the end of her article she explained something about the way that browsers evaluate CSS custom properties:

The browser doesn’t know if your property value is valid until the variable is resolved, and by then it has already processed the cascade and has thrown away any potential fallbacks.

I’m used to being able to rely on the cascade. Let’s say I’m going to set a background colour on paragraphs:

p {
  background-color: red;
  background-color: color(display-p3 1 0 0);

First I’ve set a background colour using a good ol’ fashioned keyword, supported in browsers since day one. Then I declare the background colour using the new-fangled color() function which is supported in very few browsers. That’s okay though. I can confidently rely on the cascade to fall back to the earlier declaration. Paragraphs will still have a red background colour.

But if I store the background colour in a custom property, I can no longer rely on the cascade.

:root {
  --myvariable: color(display-p3 1 0 0);
p {
  background-color: red;
  background-color: var(--myvariable);

All I’ve done is swapped out the hard-coded color() value for a custom property but now the browser behaves differently. Instead of getting a red background colour, I get the browser default value. As Lea explains:

…it will make the property invalid at computed value time.

The spec says:

When this happens, the computed value of the property is either the property’s inherited value or its initial value depending on whether the property is inherited or not, respectively, as if the property’s value had been specified as the unset keyword.

So if a browser doesn’t understand the color() function, it’s as if I’ve said:

background-color: unset;

This took me by surprise. I’m so used to being able to rely on the cascade in CSS—it’s one of the most powerful and most useful features in this programming language. Could it be, I wondered, that the powers-that-be have violated the principle of least surprise in specifying this behaviour?

But a note in the spec explains further:

Note: The invalid at computed-value time concept exists because variables can’t “fail early” like other syntax errors can, so by the time the user agent realizes a property value is invalid, it’s already thrown away the other cascaded values.

Ah, right! So first of all browsers figure out the cascade and then they evaluate custom properties. If a custom property evaluates to gobbledygook, it’s too late to figure out what the cascade would’ve fallen back to.

Thinking about it, this makes total sense. Remember that CSS custom properties aren’t like Sass variables. They aren’t evaluated once and then set in stone. They’re more like let than const. They can be updated in real time. You can update them from JavaScript too. It’s entirely possible to update CSS custom properties rapidly in response to events like, say, the user scrolling or moving their mouse. If the browser had to recalculate the cascade every time a custom property didn’t evaluate correctly, I imagine it would be an enormous performance bottleneck.

So even though this behaviour surprised me at first, it makes sense on reflection.

I’ve probably done a terrible job explaining the behaviour here, so I’ve made a Codepen. Although that may also do an equally terrible job.

(Thanks to Amber for talking through this with me and encouraging me to blog about it. And thanks to Lea for expanding my mind. Again.)