Unitless line-heights

Published 18 years, 5 months past

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.]

Comments (113)

  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. Pingback ::

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  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. Trackback ::


    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. Pingback ::

    » Blog Archive - » Unitless line-heights Alex Jones - I’m not the Alex Jones you think I am.

    […] 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. Pingback ::

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  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.

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  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.

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  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?

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  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? :)

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  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.

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  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.

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

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  88. 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.

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  90. 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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  92. Just wow on the spambot….

  93. That’s the worst spambot I’ve ever seen lol!

  94. “That’ll be in, oh, 2009 or so.”

    I’ll be looking forward backward to it. ;)

    Oh, and ECHO on the weirdness of that spambot comment. I mean, WTF?

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  100. How about just using consistent units?

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  113. Maybe it would be time to correct the bad inheritance behavior of line-height with css variable?

    * {
    html {
      --line-height: calc(.8em + .5rem);

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