Journal tags: logic

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Faulty logic

I’m a fan of logical properties in CSS. As I wrote in the responsive design course on web.dev, they’re crucial for internationalisation.

Alaa Abd El-Rahim has written articles on CSS tricks about building multi-directional layouts and controlling layout in a multi-directional website. Not having to write separate stylesheets—or even separate rules—for different writing modes is great!

More than that though, I think understanding logical properties is the best way to truly understand CSS layout tools like grid and flexbox.

It’s like when you’re learning a new language. At some point your brain goes from translating from your mother tongue into the other language, and instead starts thinking in that other language. Likewise with CSS, as some point you want to stop translating “left” and “right” into “inline-start” and “inline-end” and instead start thinking in terms of inline and block dimensions.

As is so often the case with CSS, I think new features like these are easier to pick up if you’re new to the language. I had to unlearn using floats for layout and instead learn flexbox and grid. Someone learning layout from scatch can go straight to flexbox and grid without having to ditch the cognitive baggage of floats. Similarly, it’s going to take time for me to shed the baggage of directional properties and truly grok logical properties, but someone new to CSS can go straight to logical properties without passing through the directional stage.

Except we’re not quite there yet.

In order for logical properties to replace directional properties, they need to be implemented everywhere. Right now you can’t use logical properties inside a media query, for example:

@media (min-inline-size: 40em)

That wont’ work. You have to use the old-fashioned syntax:

@media (min-width: 40em)

Now you could rightly argue that in this instance we’re talking about the physical dimensions of the viewport. So maybe width and height make more sense than inline and block.

But then take a look at how the syntax for container queries is going to work. First you declare the axis that you want to be contained using the syntax from logical properties:

main {
  container-type: inline-size;
}

But then when you go to declare the actual container query, you have to use the corresponding directional property:

@container (min-width: 40em)

This won’t work:

@container (min-inline-size: 40em)

I kind of get why it won’t work: the syntax for container queries should match the syntax for media queries. But now the theory behind disallowing logical properties in media queries doesn’t hold up. When it comes to container queries, the physical layout of the viewport isn’t what matters.

I hope that both media queries and container queries will allow logical properties sooner rather than later. Until they fall in line, it’s impossible to make the jump fully to logical properties.

There are some other spots where logical properties haven’t been fully implemented yet, but I’m assuming that’s a matter of time. For example, in Firefox I can make a wide data table responsive by making its container side-swipeable on narrow screens:

.table-container {
  max-inline-size: 100%;
  overflow-inline: auto;
}

But overflow-inline and overflow-block aren’t supported in any other browsers. So I have to do this:

.table-container {
  max-inline-size: 100%;
  overflow-x: auto;
}

Frankly, mixing and matching logical properties with directional properties feels worse than not using logical properties at all. The inconsistency is icky. This feels old-fashioned but consistent:

.table-container {
  max-width: 100%;
  overflow-x: auto;
}

I don’t think there are any particular technical reasons why browsers haven’t implemented logical properties consistently. I suspect it’s more a matter of priorities. Fully implementing logical properties in a browser may seem like a nice-to-have bit of syntactic sugar while there are other more important web standard fish to fry.

But from the perspective of someone trying to use logical properties, the patchy rollout is frustrating.

Programming CSS

There’s a worrying tendency for “real” programmers look down their noses at CSS. It’s just a declarative language, they point out, not a fully-featured programming language. Heck, it isn’t even a scripting language.

That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that CSS isn’t powerful. It’s just powerful in different ways to traditional languages.

Take CSS selectors, for example. At the most basic level, they work like conditional statments. Here’s a standard if statement:

if (condition) {
// code here
}

The condition needs to evaluate to true in order for the code in the curly braces to be executed. Sound familiar?

condition {
// styles here
}

That’s a very simple mapping, but what if the conditional statement is more complicated?

if (condition1 && condition2) {
// code here
}

Well, that’s what the decendant selector does:

condition1 condition2 {
// styles here
}

In fact, we can get even more specific than that by using the child combinator, the sibling combinator, and the adjacent sibling combinator:

  • condition1 > condition2
  • condition1 ~ condition2
  • condition2 + condition2

AND is just one part of Boolean logic. There’s also OR:

if (condition1 || condition2) {
// code here
}

In CSS, we use commas:

condition1, condition2 {
// styles here
}

We’ve even got the :not() pseudo-class to complete the set of Boolean possibilities. Once you add quantity queries into the mix, made possible by :nth-child and its ilk, CSS starts to look Turing complete. I’ve seen people build state machines using the adjacent sibling combinator and the :checked pseudo-class.

Anyway, my point here is that CSS selectors are really powerful. And yet, quite often we deliberately choose not to use that power. The entire raison d’être for OOCSS, BEM, and Smacss is to deliberately limit the power of selectors, restricting them to class selectors only.

On the face of it, this might seem like an odd choice. After all, we wouldn’t deliberately limit ourselves to a subset of a programming language, would we?

We would and we do. That’s what templating languages are for. Whether it’s PHP’s Smarty or Twig, or JavaScript’s Mustache, Nunjucks, or Handlebars, they all work by providing a deliberately small subset of features. Some pride themselves on being logic-less. If you find yourself trying to do something that the templating language doesn’t provide, that’s a good sign that you shouldn’t be trying to do it in the template at all; it should be in the controller.

So templating languages exist to enforce simplicity and ensure that the complexity happens somewhere else. It’s a similar story with BEM et al. If you find you can’t select something in the CSS, that’s a sign that you probably need to add another class name to the HTML. The complexity is confined to the markup in order to keep the CSS more straightforward, modular, and maintainable.

But let’s not forget that that’s a choice. It’s not that CSS in inherently incapable of executing complex conditions. Quite the opposite. It’s precisely because CSS selectors (and the cascade) are so powerful that we choose to put guard rails in place.