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Pseudo-elements

A pseudo-element is like adding or targeting an extra element without having to add more HTML. They have a variety of roles and you can learn about them in this module.

The CSS Podcast - 014: Pseudo-elements

If you've got an article of content and you want the first letter to be a much bigger drop cap— how do you achieve that?

A couple of paragraphs of text with a blue drop cap

In CSS, you can use the ::first-letter pseudo-element to achieve this sort of design detail.

p::first-letter {
color: blue;
float: left;
font-size: 2.6em;
font-weight: bold;
line-height: 1;
margin-inline-end: 0.2rem;
}

A pseudo-element is like adding or targeting an extra element without having to add more HTML. This example solution, using ::first-letter, is one of many pseudo-elements. They have a range of roles, and in this lesson you're going to learn which pseudo-elements are available and how you can use them.

::before and ::after #

Both the ::before and ::after pseudo-elements create a child element inside an element only if you define a content property.

.my-element::before {
content: "";
}

.my-element::after {
content: "";
}

The content can be any string —even an empty one— but be mindful that anything other than an empty string will likely be announced by a screen reader. You can add an image url, which will insert an image at its original dimensions, so you won't be able to resize it. You can also insert a counter.

Key Term: You can create a named counter and then increment it, based on it's position in the document flow. There's all sorts of contexts where they can be really useful, such as automatically numbering an outline.

Once a ::before or ::after element has been created, you can style it however you want with no limits. You can only insert a ::before or ::after element to an element that will accept child elements (elements with a document tree), so elements such as <img />, <video> and <input> won't work.

Gotchas!

input[type="checkbox"] is an exception. It is allowed to have pseudo-element children.

::first-letter #

We met this pseudo-element at the start of the lesson. It is worth being aware that not all CSS properties can be used when targeting ::first-letter. The available properties are:

  • color
  • background properties (such as background-image)
  • border properties (such as border-color)
  • float
  • font properties (such as font-size and font-weight)
  • text properties (such as text-decoration and word-spacing)
p::first-letter {
color: goldenrod;
font-weight: bold;
}

You can only use :first-letter on block containers. Therefore, it won't work if you try to add it to an element that has display: inline.

::first-line #

The ::first-line pseudo-element will let you style the first line of text only if the element with ::first-line applied has a display value of block, inline-block, list-item, table-caption or table-cell.

p::first-line {
color: goldenrod;
font-weight: bold;
}

Like the ::first-letter pseudo-element, there's only a subset of CSS properties you can use:

  • color
  • background properties
  • font properties
  • text properties

::backdrop #

If you have an element that is presented in full screen mode, such as a <dialog> or a <video>, you can style the backdrop—the space between the element and the rest of the page—with the ::backdrop pseudo-element:

video::backdrop {
background-color: goldenrod;
}

The ::backdrop pseudo-element is supported in all major browsers apart from Safari.

::marker #

The ::marker pseudo-element lets you style the bullet or number for a list item or the arrow of a <summary> element.

::marker {
color: hotpink;
}

ul ::marker {
font-size: 1.5em;
}

ol ::marker {
font-size: 1.1em;
}

summary::marker {
content: '\002B'' '; /* Plus symbol with space */
}

details[open] summary::marker {
content: '\2212'' '; /* Minus symbol with space */
}

Only a small subset of CSS properties are supported for ::marker:

  • color
  • content
  • white-space
  • font properties
  • animation and transition properties

You can change the marker symbol, using the content property. You can use this to set a plus and minus symbol for the closed and empty states of a <summary> element, for example.

::selection #

The ::selection pseudo-element allows you to style how selected text looks.

::selection {
background: green;
color: white;
}

This pseudo-element can be used to style all selected text as in the above demo. It can also be used in combination with other selectors for a more specific selection style.

p:nth-of-type(2)::selection {
background: darkblue;
color: yellow;
}

As with other pseudo-elements, only a subset of CSS properties are allowed:

  • color
  • background-color but not background-image
  • text properties

::placeholder #

You can add a helper hint to form elements, such as <input> with a placeholder attribute. The ::placeholder pseudo-element allows you to style that text.

input::placeholder {
color: darkcyan;
}

The ::placeholder only supports a subset of CSS rules:

  • color
  • background properties
  • font properties
  • text properties

A placeholder is not <label> and should not be used in place of a <label>. Form elements must be labelled or they will be inaccessible.

::cue #

Last in this tour of pseudo-elements is the ::cue pseudo-element. This allows you to style the WebVTT cues, which are the captions of a <video> element.

You can also pass a selector into a ::cue, which allows you to style specific elements inside a caption.

video::cue {
color: yellow;
}

video::cue(b) {
color: red;
}

video::cue(i) {
color: lightpink;
}
Test your knowledge of pseudo-elements

Which of the following are not pseudo-elements?

::before ::first-paragraph ::after ::marker ::pencil :active

Don't forget to add content: '';.

This doesn't exist in CSS.

Don't forget to add content: '';.

This is the bullet element when you use a list element or display type.

This doesn't exist in CSS.

This is a pseudo-class not a pseudo-element.

Pseudo-elements can be found in an HTML file.

True False

While DevTools may show pseudo-elements in the Elements panel, pseudo-elements won't be found in the HTML, they're owned by the browser.

They can be targeted by CSS but won't be found in the HTML.