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Archive: 3 November 2009

Pseudo-Phantoms

In the course of a recent debugging session, I discovered a limitation of web inspectors (Firebug, Dragonfly, Safari’s Web Inspector, et al.) that I hadn’t quite grasped before: they don’t show pseudo-elements and they’re not so great with pseudo-classes.  There’s one semi-exception to this rule, which is Internet Explorer 8’s built-in Developer Tool.  It shows pseudo-elements just fine.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

p::after {content: " -\2761-"; font-size: smaller;}

Drop that style into any document that has paragraphs.  Load it up in your favorite development browser.  Now inspect a paragraph.  You will not see the generated content in the DOM view, and you won’t see the pseudo-element rule in the Styles tab (except in IE, where you get the latter, though not the former).

The problem isn’t that I used an escaped Unicode reference; take that out and you’ll still see the same results, as on the test page I threw together.  It isn’t the double-colon syntax, either, which all modern browsers handle just fine; and anyway, I can take it back to a single colon and still see the same results.  ::first-letter, ::first-line, ::before, and ::after are all basically invisible in most inspectors.

This can be a problem when developing, especially in cases such as having a forgotten, runaway generated-content clearfix making hash of the layout.  No matter how many times you inspect the elements that are behaving strangely, you aren’t going to see anything in the inspector that tells you why the weirdness is happening.

The same is largely true for dynamic pseudo-classes.  If you style all five link states, only two will show up in most inspectors—either :link or :visited, depending on whether you’ve visited the link’s target; and :focus.  (You can sometimes also get :hover in Dragonfly, though I’ve not been able to do so reliably.  IE8’s Developer Tool always shows a:link even when the link is visited, and doesn’t appear to show any other link states.  …yes, this is getting complicated.)

The more static pseudo-classes, like :first-child, do show up pretty well across the board (except in IE, which doesn’t support all the advanced static pseudo-classes; e.g., :last-child).

I can appreciate that inspectors face an interesting challenge here.  Pseudo-elements are just that, and aren’t part of the actual structure.  And yet Internet Explorer’s Developer Tool manages to find those rules and display them without any fuss, even if it doesn’t show generated content in its DOM view.  Some inspectors do better than others with dynamic pseudo-classes, but the fact remains that you basically can’t see some of them even though they will potentially apply to the inspected link at some point.

I’d be very interested to know what inspector teams encountered in trying to solve this problem, or if they’ve never tried.  I’d be especially interested to know why IE shows pseudo-elements when the others don’t—is it made simple by their rendering engine’s internals, or did someone on the Developer Tool team go to the extra effort of special-casing those rules?

For me, however, the overriding question is this: what will it take for the various inspectors to behave more like IE’s does, and show pseudo-element and pseudo-class rules that are associated with the element currently being inspected?  And as a bonus, to get them to show in the DOM view where the pseudo-elements actually live, so to speak?

(Addendum: when I talk about IE and the Developer Tool in this post, I mean the tool built into IE8.  I did not test the Developer Toolbar that was available for IE6 and IE7.  Thanks to Jeff L for pointing out the need to be clear about that.)

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