Unitless line-heights

Published 12 years, 1 week ago

I’d like to share something that will be old news to readers of CSS: The Definitive Guide and all of my other books, but nonetheless needs to be said out loud, in public, for everyone to hear.

The property line-height can accept unitless number values.  You can also give line-height united values, though generally you shouldn’t.  But unitless numbers are just fine for this property.

So what’s the difference?  When you define a united value, like 1em, you’re setting things up to pass along the computed result to any descendants.  For example, suppose the following CSS is applied to a document containing the following markup fragment:

ul {font-size: 15px; line-height: 1em;}
li {font-size: 10px;}
small {font-size: 80%;}

  <li>I'm a list item with <small>small text</small>.</li>

The ul element has its line-height computed to be 15px because for line-height, em-based values are calculated using the computed font-size of the element itself.  I declared the font-size directly, so we know its computed size in pixels.

(Yes, yes, I know, pixel-sized text is evil and wrong, but it makes explaining how all this works a lot simpler.)

So that computed value of 15px is what’s passed on to the descendent elements.  The li and small elements will inherit a line-height value of 15px.  End of story.  They don’t change it based on their own font sizes; in fact, they don’t change it at all.  They just take that 15px and use it, exactly the same as if I’d said:

ul {font-size: 15px; line-height: 1em;}
li {font-size: 10px; line-height: 15px;}
small {font-size: 80%; line-height: 15px;}

Okay, now suppose I take the em off that line-height value, so that the styles now read:

ul {font-size: 15px; line-height: 1;}
li {font-size: 10px;}
small {font-size: 80%;}

Now what’s passed on is that raw number, which is used by descendent elements as a scaling factor—a multiplier, if you will–and not the computed result.

Thus every element that inherits that value of 1 will take that value and multiply it with their computed font-sizes.  The list item, with its declared font-size: 10px, will have a computed line-height of 10px.  Then it will pass that 1 on to the small element, which will multiply it with its computed font-size.  That’s 8 pixels; therefore, its line-height will also be 8 pixels.

The end result is exactly the same as if I’d written:

ul {font-size: 15px; line-height: 1;}
li {font-size: 10px; line-height: 10px;}
small {font-size: 80%; line-height: 8px;}

That’s a pretty major difference.  This is why it’s always strongly recommended that you use unitless numbers if you’re going to set a line-height on something like the html or body elements, or indeed on any element that is going to have descendant elements.

The fact that the CSS validator has a bug that causes it to generate parse errors on unitless number values for line-height (see report #2307) rather confuses things; we get an occasional jeering e-mail over at A List Apart as a result, since running CSS validation on the site gets an error due to my use of line-height: 1;.  Jeffrey points the correspondents to that bug report, and usually we never hear anything back.

And if anyone reading this feels motivated to fix the validator, please do.  As it says in the bug report, all they really need is a patch for review.  I might do it myself when I have some free time.  That’ll be in, oh, 2009 or so.

Again: the property line-height can accept unitless number values, and they’re a better choice than united values in 99 out of 100 cases anyway.  Okay?  Thank you.

[Addendum 26 Aug 06: Roger Johansson points out a bug in older Gecko browsers relating to unitless line-heights.]

  • Published
  • Categorized under CSS
  • 108 responses so far

  1. Actually, it’s well known validator issue – validator itself respects unitless values, but for some reason not those without the point mark.

    So, for valid CSS, if you really need it, you should use line-height: 1.0; instead of line-height: 1; Strange, isn’t it?

    Well, it does not change the fact than validator is wrong, but it’s something…

  2. Unitless numbers without the point mark are valid CSS, which was part of my point. The validator is just flat wrong about rejecting unitless integer numbers.

  3. Indeed. I just wanted to pick up some solution for those people who don’t know. Of course validator is wrong, and this is not the only case.

  4. The question to ask is: how much time do you/Jeffrey/etc spend answering the “occasional jeering email”? Calculate the cost of this email-answering, and compare with the benefits — the feeling of smugness you get from being right, the very slight possibility that you’re educating people, the aerobic exercise you get from the extra typing, etc. If the cost exceeds the benefit, change all the line-heights to 100% instead of 1. Problem solved.

  5. Sorry, Eric, but 100% is a united value. It does not have the same effect as 1. It does, however, have the same effect as 1em.

    Who said anything about getting a feeling of smugness?

  6. […] « Iona Johnson Unitless Line Heights Unitless Line Heights from Eric Meyer – sometimes the validator is wrong (of […]

  7. Good to know, thanks.

  8. Why not include a comment in the CSS file saying “&qout;3C CSS validator gets this wrong&qout;? Some people might look at the file before complaining about it, see the comment and not pop off that e-mail to report the &qout;problem&qout;.

  9. And thank you. Now when asked we can also point to this post.

  10. Unitless line-heights.

    “Unitless line-heights”:http://meyerweb.com/eric/thoughts/2006/02/08/unitless-line-heights/ – OK I get it ;)

  11. Thanks you Eric. Timely as always. Nice to know. I’ll pass it on.

  12. […] ing application of line-height within the cascade, specifically he recommends implementing Unitless line-heights (’1′ instead of ‘1em’ or &#8216 […]

  13. Eric:

    I specify my font size as a keyword in the body rule, and then use percentages for the headers, paragraphs etc…

    Can I still use the unitless line-heights for keywords and percentages?

  14. I just submitted a patch that should fix this. Let’s hope it’s not too long before it gets integrated into the live validator.

  15. Didn’t you mention this like a year ago? I swear I’ve heard about the validator choking on this before. And they still haven’t fixed it?

  16. This make so much sense it hurts.

  17. Am I missing something here?


    Aren’t these all the same? They all calculate their leading (line-height, if you must) on the fly.

  18. I know I read somehwere about this that if you just place a 1.0 instead of 1, it works in validating.

  19. […] nbsp;  Link 3 How to effect unitless line heights Eric Meyer (who else?) has the answer: The property line-height can accept un […]

  20. Jesse: you rule.

    Nick: assuming I’ve understood your question correctly, then yes.

    Pat: yes, you’re missing something there. 1.5em and 150% have the same effect, which is the first example I gave in my article: they pass on the computed value of line-height to any descendant element (in the article, that was 15px).

    The unitless value 1.5 does not have the same effect. It is passed along in the raw, and allows each descendant element to calculate its line-height “on the fly”, as you put it. That was the second example in the article.

    So while 1.5em and 150% are equivalent, 1.5 is not.

  21. […] at this produces more legible, more professional looking copy. I read recently however on Eric Meyer’s site that I hadn’t bee […]

  22. […] « Olympics No units for line-height in css Eric Meyer, you are a very useful human being. Thank You. […]

  23. Eric, I was referring to a method that Dan Cederholm talks about in his new book. Whereas you specify a keyword and then specify percentages based on this keyword.

  24. […] ed Thoughts: Unitless line-heights Filed under: Quick Links — 7:58 pm Eric’s Archived Thoughts: Unitless line-heights – For future CSS refe […]

  25. “(Yes, yes, I know, pixel-sized text is evil and wrong, but it makes explaining how all this works a lot simpler.)”

    In theory, yes. In practice, yes and no. I have been experiencing some serious flaws designing a particular site to display text propery within the broken IE6 (plays nicely within Safari, Firefox, Nutscrape), and had to revert back to px units for defining text size rather than em units.

    Meanwhile I long for true typographical manipulation on the web. Things such as kerning pair definitions come to mind, just to name one of my wishes.

    -he who stacks pork

  26. This is interesting (and explains a few oddities I wasn’t aware of). Just as a question of principle rather than practice: while I can understand passing the ‘absolute’ value of, say, 1.5em down to all inherited elements, if the parent element had a line-height of 150%, wouldn’t a much more logical implementation have been to pass the percentage down to each inherited element, so the 150% would behave like the unit-less 1.5? The behavior of computing the 150% from the parent element’s font size and then using it as an absolute value for all child elements is counter-intuitive and, I’d think, undesirable. Is that actually what’s intended by the CSS specification?

  27. Watts: intuitive or otherwise, the behavior of percentages as distinct from unitless numbers is exactly what’s intended by the CSS specification.

    The used value of the property is this number multiplied by the element’s font size. Negative values are illegal. The computed value is the same as the specified value.
    The computed value of the property is this percentage multiplied by the element’s computed font size. Negative values are illegal.


    Specified values are resolved to computed values during the cascade; for example URIs are made absolute and ’em’ and ‘ex’ units are computed to pixel or absolute lengths.


  28. What I think is interesting is the question is the described passing on a correct implementation of the CSS rule. If I assign a relative value of 1em to the line-height I would expect it to pass on relative as 1em and not as the computer result of say 15px. So to use unitless values like 1 as Eric describes works and might give a desired result. But is this the way you should use the line-height or is it a hack?

  29. […] ! User Interface Blog Design Pattern Library Yahoo! UI Library Graded Browser Support Unitless line-heights Taking Aim at Target(.com) Staying on Target Nationa […]

  30. Hi Eric, This is great. But one question: does the css spec specify othe r areas where unitless values are allowed or is this an exception?

  31. This is possibly a little irrelevant to the article, but I use ems for line-height on ‘paragraphs’ and ‘headings’, but I use pixels on ‘list’ elements, especially when they are styled as vertical buttons. This is because I get a curious “extra pixel” gap in firefox – usually on the third and fifth/sixth list-item. Is this a known bug or conflicts within my own coding, I wonder? …

  32. Bertje: It’s not a hack. It works. What more is there to know? :)

  33. […] s not equal 150% i had no idea! this explains a lot though. read this article on unitless line heights to find out what i’m talking about… and i&# […]

  34. […] Eric explains why in CSS, the property line-height, can accept unitless number values. You can also give line-height united values, though g […]

  35. CSS line-height does not need a unit

    You do not need to use a unit when specifying line-height in CSS. Also be aware that the presence of a unit affects how line-height is calculated.

  36. […] ntly published article this year from the author of a CSS book, Eric Meyer. Eric’s article explained though how some of us implement a […]

  37. […] ot necessary for the CSS property line-height. You can read more on unit-less line heights here. As explained on 456 Berea St: to avoid triggering a validation error wh […]

  38. […]

  39. […] eight:1.2) cada uno de los descendientes multiplicará ese valor por su tamaño de fuente? Eric Meyer dixit. O sea div{ font-size: 10px; line-height: 1.2em; } div p{ […]

  40. […] Standards Project 10 February Philly Standards Writeup News.com San Francisco Chronicle Unitless and Somewhat Slightly Dazed Although the W3C validator claims that A […]


    […] Segundo as especificações das CSS 2.1, na propriedade line-height das CSS não é necessário especificar uma unidade de medida concreta […]

  42. By the way, it’s Roger Johansson, not Johanssen. :)

  43. The CSS validator has finally been updated!

    I wrote all about it: Unitless Line Heights Are Finally Valid.

  44. […] Meyer, the man with CSS skillz that payz da billz, reveals something I”ve never heard of before: line-height property can use unitless values! The differences between united vs. unitless declarations are well described in his article but I […]

  45. […] angeschnitten. an was k

  46. […] Egenskapen line-height definerer høyden på en linje i elementet. Denne verdien kan angis gjennom fellesegenskapen font og skal helst oppgis i enhetsløse verdier. […]

  47. […] Eric’s Archived Thoughts: Unitless line-heights The property line-height can accept unitless number values. You can also give line-height united values, though generally you shouldn”t. But unitless numbers are just fine for this property. (tags: web design css) […]

  48. […] spazio tra le righe del testo) deve essere scalabile. Per questa ragione è preferibile utilizzare valori numerici privi di unità di misura per la proprietà line-height (per esempio 1.5) perché questi valori sono scalabili e risolvono […]

  49. […] Also worth adding to the mix is Eric Meyer”s Unitless line-heights. […]

  50. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the following equivalent ?

    body * { line-height: 1em; }
    body { line-height: 1; }

  51. Actually, I’ve looked into the above a bit deeper since posting the previous comment.

    Both rules aren’t equal.

    body * { line-height: 1em; } (the reset used by YUI) does not cascade properly.

    For example: span elements contained inside a paragraph would not inherit from the paragraph’s line-height if the latter had been specified.

    So the rule you suggest, Eric, is actually much smarter.

  52. Great job on the validator fix, Jesse. You just saved Eric a couple hundred more email questions!

  53. thanks for your article. i have been using px for this very reason. i assume the shorthand version works as well ‘ font: 62.5%/2 ‘lucida grande’, ‘tahoma’, sans-serif;’ ?? can’t bring myself to do longhand unless i have to! thanks, again

  54. Thanks Eric. Added to my list of *a million things I learned from Eric Meyer*

  55. I don’t know f u r interested but i’ve been using the unitless method for a while know & today i discovered that it doesn’t work in a very spesific case; which is MS Outlook when coding a CSS newsletter & send it 2 an outlook reciepient the unitless value is defaulted to inch which is way bigger than em. When i added em the problem everything was ok.

  56. Actually, the previous poster – المصمم توقيع / TawQee3 ‘s point is well taken: if there’s a bug on this in Outlook (gosh, bugs?), it will no doubt delay implementation of this css standard in emails. Certainly the styled emails we send out aren’t going to be able to have 1 inch line heights! Not with a reader base that’s over 90% outlook. Ugh.

  57. […] the man with CSS skillz that payz da billz, reveals something I’ve never heard of before: line-height property can use unitless values! The differences between united vs. unitless declarations are well described in his article but I […]

  58. […] Eric’s Archived Thoughts: Unitless line-heights  Annotated […]

  59. […] Unitless line-heights […]

  60. […] Unitless line-heights […]

  61. […] angabe ohne einheit-angabe hat schon seinen sinn. dass ie line-height unter 1 nicht interpretiert, ist mir auch aufgefallen, habe daf

  62. […] de style, est la présence d’une valeur sans unité de mesure (line-height: 1) qui mérite quelques explications. Pour ceux qui ne sont pas à l’aise avec l’anglais, j’ai repris les exemples […]

  63. […] case, px) when setting the line-height enables the value to be inherited throughout the page. If a unitless line-height had been specified, the multiplier would have been inherited, resulting in line-heights being […]

  64. […] (number) で指定した方が良いのにとか思ったりする。その理由は Eric’s Archived Thoughts: Unitless line-heights […]

  65. […] caso, px) ao configurar a altura da linha permite que o valor seja herdado em toda página. Se uma altura de linha sem unidade fosse especificada, o multiplicador seria herdado, resultando em alturas de linha renderizadas […]

  66. […] short google search on the subject led me to the coincidentally same-titled Unitless Line Heights by… Eric Meyer. The web design world is very small, or Meyer has strong Google […]

  67. Wish I had seen this post a few years ago – nice and clearly spelled out. Thanks.

  68. […] zeigt das Problem nicht, line-height wird beachtet. Au

  69. […] inspired by the Compose to a Vertical Rhythm article by Richard Rutter a few years ago, except uses unitless line height.” Check out the demo […]

  70. […] Line heights needn’t have a specific unit. A line height of “1.5″, for example, will simply assume you meant “1.5 times my font size.” For more on this phenomenon, visit Eric Meyer’s article on Unitless Line Heights. […]

  71. […] case, px) when setting the line-height enables the value to be inherited throughout the page. If a unitless line-height had been specified, the multiplier would have been inherited, resulting in line-heights being […]

  72. […] height is optional.  Note that line height doesn’t have a unit.  Eric Meyer explains […]

  73. […] Line heights needn”t have a specific unit. A line height of “1.5?, for example, will simply assume you meant “1.5 times my font size.” For more on this phenomenon, visit Eric Meyer”s article on Unitless Line Heights. […]

  74. […] puzzles me, because webdesign guru’s like Eric Meyer and Roger Johanson wrote about it. I couldn’t find any info on IE7 specific and […]

  75. […] Line heights needn”t have a spe­cific unit. A line height of “1.5″, for exam­ple, will sim­ply assume you meant “1.5 times my font size.” For more on this phe­nom­e­non, visit Eric Meyer”s arti­cle on Unit­less Line Heights. […]

  76. […] of 1em is equal to 24px (ie the same as itself). Otherwise I believe you can use unitless values Eric's Archived Thoughts: Unitless line-heights I am — Harry Roberts | Web Design+ Licenses now available | CSS Wizardry | And now […]

  77. […] A handy CSS tip and technique that I was previously unaware of. […]

  78. […] 1.8, which is blindingly obvious and cannot be unseen once you see it). Then I’m finding out unitless line heights (i.e. 1.4 and not 1.4em) are a good idea, because otherwise the value that’s inherited by the […]

  79. […] even know existed until recently: unitless line height. Eric Meyer explains this idea in detail here, but I’ll give you a quick […]

  80. […] more sensible. I am of the opinion that unitless line heights are much more sensible in most cases as does Eric Meyer. __________________ http://www.pmob.co.uk CSS FAQ 3 col demo Read My CSS Articles Ultimate CSS […]

  81. The New Quora Comments…

    +1 to whomever just max-height’d the images & set the line-height Note on line-height, though, is that you probably want to use unitless values rather than em’s! Rather than inheriting the value from the line where it was defined, the ratio is inheri…

  82. […] to conform to unitless line heights I have a problem with overflow: auto and anchor elements. Consider the following simple […]

  83. Interestingly, dropping it breaks vertical rhythm in some browsers. But the idea is tempting. ;)

  84. […] kids say, that. What’s more, we don’t actually need to add units to the line-height, as Eric Meyer’s covered so ably before. Instead, we can leave that proportional value in place, sans pixels, percentages, […]

  85. […] use SASS there is also a mixin available to provide a px fallback for older browsers.And secondly, line-height can be unitless. Who knew? Not me, obviously. By Jonathan Warren Updated: 28th November 2011CSSremsTypographyNo […]

  86. […] However, even better than using ems, you just set them unitless. Work out the em value, but drop the em from the value, so line-height:1.5em; would just be line-height:1.5;. Eric Meyer explains this nicely over on his site. […]

  87. Unless you want to keep a consistent vertical grid throughout the layout. In that case, you SHOULD specify your line height with ems in the body, as this will keep all your typography on the same baseline, regardless of its size. This is a classic tenet of typography and gives your document a real nice, clean look. I wouldn’t be so quick to switch to unitless line-heights.

  88. […] sure that you know the difference between a line height of 1.2 and […]

  89. I agree with Mike above. In the interests of keeping a vertical rhythm in my type, I don’t generally want my line-height to be a function of the font-size of a particular element, I want it to relate to the global line height. So usually I would set the line-height on the body and let it inherit through. Of course occasionally you will need to break from this, for example if an H1 is too large for the global line height. But smaller text should usually use the global line height and have more gaps (http://www.webtypography.net/Rhythm_and_Proportion/Vertical_Motion/2.2.2/)

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  94. […] going to be using “Unitless line heights” as explained by Eric Meyer, so we can avoid unexpected results. What’s so awesome […]

  95. […] try to setup my styles as efficiently as possible.  I started defining the base line-height using unitless values, which seemingly allows me to go without assigning a line-height to any other element on the […]

  96. […] going to be using “Unitless line heights” as explained by Eric Meyer, so we can avoid unexpected results. What’s so awesome […]

  97. […] you’re interested in reading more on the topic Eric Meyer covered it solidly way back in 2006, plus Harry Roberts has a great overview of measurement units from a couple of […]

  98. […] to laugh my ass off reading a comment on an article by A List Apart‘s author Eric Meyer. The article is actually pretty insightful itself, explaining the difference between the use of united values […]

  99. How about just using consistent units?

  100. […] Use unit-less values for line-height. […]

  101. […] Line height should also be unit-less, unless necessary to be defined as a specific pixel value. This is more than just a style convention, but is worth mentioning here. More information:http://meyerweb.com/eric/thoughts/2006/02/08/unitless-line-heights/ […]

  102. […] unitless values—or using a number, are recommended as they are based off of computed values, and more importantly, it’s the only option that […]

  103. […] Nguồn : meyerweb […]

  104. […] Height was set to 1.25 or 20px. Remember that the Line Height value can be unitless, which is a unique characteristic of this CSS […]

  105. […] Nielsen and Meyer both recommend relative font-sizes. In a 2002 article  Nielsen says: “Do not use absolute font sizes in your style sheets. Code font sizes in relative terms, typically using percentages such as 120% for big text and 90% for small text.” Meyer goes so far as to say “pixel-sized text is evil and wrong”. […]

  106. […] Notice that the line-height is set without a unit of measure (2, not 2px). This is a simple multiplier that takes the font-size into account (18px * 2 = 36px line-height). You can read more about this technique here. […]

  107. […] me is that I couldn’t get this lock’s result to be unitless. I generally prefer to use unitless line-height values. I also wonder how the math might be different with container or element […]

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