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Chapter 1. HTML and CSS


The Web's Fall from Grace
CSS to the Rescue
Limitations of CSS
Bringing CSS and HTML Together

In many ways, the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) specification represents a unique development in the history of the World Wide Web. In its inherent ability to allow richly styled structural documents, CSS is both a step forward and a step backward -- but it's a good step backward, and a needed one. To see what is meant by this, it is first necessary to understand how the Web got to the point of desperately needing something like CSS, and how CSS makes the web a better place for both page authors and web surfers.

1.1. The Web's Fall from Grace

Back in the dimly remembered early years of the Web (1990 -1993), HTML was a fairly lean little language. It was almost entirely

However, it's important to realize that the vertically aligned text is not part of another line. It just appears that way when there isn't any other text around. Consider Figure 4-40, in which some vertically aligned text appears in the middle of a paragraph.

Figure 4-40

Figure 4-40. Percentage alignments can affect the height of a line

Of course, this sort of thing can lead to some fun visual effects, as we see in Figure 4-41:

SUB {vertical-align: -100%;}
composed of structural elements that were useful for describing
things like paragraphs, hyperlinks, lists, and headings. It had
nothing even remotely approaching tables, frames, or the complex
markup we assume is a necessary part of creating web pages. The
general idea was that HTML would be a structural markup language,
used to describe the various parts of a document. There was very
little said about how these parts should be displayed. The language
wasn't concerned with appearance. It was just a clean little
markup scheme.

Then came Mosaic.

Suddenly, the power of the World Wide Web was obvious to almost anyone who spent more than ten minutes playing with it. Jumping from one document to another was no harder than pointing the mouse cursor at a specially colored bit of text, or even an image, and clicking the mouse button. Even better, text and images could be displayed together, and all you needed to create a page was a plain text editor. It was free, it was open, and it was cool.

Web sites began to spring up everywhere. There were personal journals, university sites, corporate sites, and more. As number of sites increased, so did the demand for new HTML tags that would allow one effect or another. Authors started demanding that they be able to make text boldfaced, or italicized.

At the time, HTML wasn't equipped to handle these sorts of desires. You could declare a bit of text to be emphasized, but that wasn't necessarily the same as being italicized -- it could be boldfaced instead, or even normal text with a different color, depending on the user's browser and their preferences. There was nothing to ensure that what the author created was what the reader would see.

As a result of these pressures, markup elements like <B> and <I> started to creep into the language. Suddenly, a structural language started to become presentational.

1.1.1. What a Mess

Years later, we have inherited the flaws inherent in this process. Large parts of HTML 3.2 and HTML 4.0, for example, are devoted to presentational considerations. The ability to color and size text through the FONT element, to apply background colors and images to documents and tables, to space and pad the contents of table cells, and to make text blink on and off are all the legacy of the original cries for "more control!"

If you want to know why this is a bad thing, all it takes is a quick glance at any corporate web site's page markup. The sheer amount of markup in comparison to actual useful information is astonishing. Even worse, for most sites, the markup is almost entirely made up of tables and FONT tags, none of which conveys any real semantic meaning to what's being presented. From a structural standpoint, these pages are little better than random strings of letters.

For example, let's assume that for page titles, an author is using FONT tags instead of heading tags like H1, like this:

<FONT SIZE="+3" FACE="Helvetica" COLOR="red">Page Title</FONT>

Structurally speaking, the FONT tag has no meaning. This makes the document far less useful. What good is a FONT tag to a speech-synthesis browser, for example? If an author uses heading tags instead of FONT tags, the speaking browser can use a certain speaking style to read the text. With the FONT tag, the browser has no way to know that the text is any different from other text.

Why do authors run roughshod over structure and meaning like this? Because they want readers to see the page as they designed it. To use structural HTML markup is to give up a lot of control over a page's appearance, and it certainly doesn't allow for the kind of densely packed page designs that have become so popular over the years.

So what's wrong with this? Consider the following:

Granted, a fully structured document is a little plain. Due to that one single fact, a hundred arguments in favor of structural markup wouldn't sway a marketing department away from the kind of HTML so prevalent at the end of the twentieth century. What was needed was a way to combine structural markup with attractive page presentation.

This concept is nothing new. There have been many style sheet technologies proposed and created over the last few decades. These were intended for use in various industries and in conjunction with a variety of structural markup languages. The concept had been tested, used, and generally found to be a benefit to any environment where structure had to be presented. However, no style sheet solution was immediately available for use with HTML. Something had to be done to correct this problem.

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:first-letter. Here's how it works:

SPAN.dropcap {font-size: 300%; font-weight: bold; float: left;width: 0.75em;}<P><SPAN CLASS="dropcap">T</SPAN>his is a paragraph with...</P>

Since this is very similar to the fictional tag sequence used todescribe the behavior of :first-letter anyway, itworks fairly well. It's less elegant, granted, but it doeswork. We use a width of 0.75embecause most letters are not as wide as they are tall, but of courseinfluences the generation of element boxes, which means that floatsindirectly do affect these boxes.

Some particulars can help explain some of this behavior. An elementthat has been floated becomes a block-level element, regardless of itsprevious status. Thus, if an image (which is ordinarily treated as aninline element) is floated, it becomes a block-level element. Thisblock-level status helps explain why when an element is floated,other content flows around it.

limitation is no big deal.

If you wish to place comments on the same line as markup, then youneed to be careful about how you place them. For example, this is thecorrect way to do it:

H1 {color: gray;}   /* This CSS comment is several lines */H2 {color: silver;} /* long, but since it is alongside */P {color: white;}   /* actual styles, each line needs to */PRE {color: gray;} /* be wrapped in comment markers. */
padding may be the best way to set styles thatwill hold up in more than one media; for example, documents that willlook good on a monitor as well as a printout.

It's also possible to mix percentages with length values. Thus,to set H1 elements to have top and bottom marginsof one-half em and side margins that are 10% of the width of thebrowser window, you can declare the following, shown in Figure 7-12:

H1 {margin: 0.5em 10% 0.5em 10%;}