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Where to Avoid CSS Hyphenation

Last week, I asked “Should You Hyphenate?”  This week, I’m going to assume that you decided to answer in the affirmative and talk about some good practices (I don’t know if they’re best practices just yet).  This post was actually triggered by a comment from Kevin Hamilton on last week’s post.  He said, in part:

You may want to exclude hyphenation on <code> tags within your blog. For both readability purposes (since many CSS tags already make heavy use of hyphens) and to avoid introducing some confusing/misleading references… Is it re-peating-linear-gradient? Or perhaps repeating-lin-ear-gradient?

He’s absolutely right, of course.  If you’re going to blog about technical topics, or even if you’re just writing a style sheet that you expect to release into the wild for use by anyone, there are some elements that you should avoid hyphenating.  And since hyphens is an inherited property, it isn’t sufficient to set it for a limited number of elements and assume you’re done.  You have to make sure you’ve turned it off for the elements that shouldn’t be hyphenated.

In my opinion, those elements are:

Yes, most of those are old and obscure and in some cases (massively) deprecated, but they’re all elements that could be hanging around on a web site and by their nature shouldn’t have their content hyphenated.  I mean, I would hope that a browser would recognize not to hyphenate an acronym or abbreviation element, but who knows?  Maybe ZOMGWTFBBQROFLMFAOCOPTER has enough word-like strings to qualify for hyphenation in some hyphenation dictionaries.  (Or not.)

“So what about pre?” you ask.  A very good question.  I rate that as a solid “maybe”.  For most uses of pre, the content won’t line-wrap anyway thanks to white-space: pre, so it’s a moot point.  However, if a pre has been set to white-space of pre-wrap, pre-line, or even normal, then hyphenation may well kick in.

At that point, the question is what kind of content the pre contains.  It apparently is no longer meant to be rigidly preformatted, as the element name would imply, so what is it?  If it’s a code block, there should already be a code element present within the pre, so suppressing hyphenation for code will be sufficient.  Ditto if it’s an example of user input (kbd), program output (samp), and so on.  This is why semantic markup matters.  It’s why, if you’ve been using it all along, you can make fine-grained choices here.

Of course, lots of people weren’t as forward-looking as you and anyway nobody’s perfect, so it’s probably a good idea to switch off hyphenation for pre, just in case the more semantic elements were left out.

There are similar questions to confront regarding q and blockquote.  If you’re quoting someone, almost certainly something that someone wrote, is it advisable to hyphenate that text when they didn’t?  I’m honestly not sure if it matters or not.  I’ve personally suppressed hyphenation in those cases, but I did that purely on instinct and I’d love to know what content and typography specialists think of that question.  (Be polite, please.  We’re all learning here.)

For the last interesting question, what about auto-linked URLs?  If we suppress hyphenation for all links, then that solves one problem to introduce another.  What I have noticed is that if you drag-select CSS-hyphenated text, the auto-generated hyphen(s) and line break(s) are ignored when you copy the text.  You just get the original.  That’s why I don’t think it’s really necessary to suppress hyphenation on the a element, though I’m willing to change my mind in the presence of new evidence.

Thus, at the moment, meyerweb’s base style sheet contains the following:

body {hyphens: auto;}
code, var, kbd, samp, tt, dir, listing, plaintext, xmp,
      abbr, acronym, blockquote, q {hyphens: none;}

I may adjust those rules over time, but that’s where I’ve landed.

Update 18 Dec 12: I should make it more clear that this post is intended to be a starting point, not the final word.  I’m not proposing that these are all the elements on which one should ever suppress hyphenation, full stop, end of discussion.  There may well be others, like form labels and textareas and text inputs and so forth, that should also be excluded.  (Though I kind of enjoy watching my text input get auto-hyphenated as I type.  It’s a little surreal.)  Hopefully, this post will get people thinking about exactly how authors should handle hyphenation if they do choose to put it in place, and eventually help us figure out some solid best practices.

Should You Hyphenate?

A couple of weeks back, PPK posted about the sudden emergence of CSS hyphenation support in several browsers (which got picked up by WebMonkey, the lucky dog).  At the time, there was some confusion about whether a lang attribute it required to allow the hyphenation to happen—PPK said it did, but my testing indicated the opposite.

Well, it turned out that at the moment I did that test, I was running Firefox 16, and FF16 apparently honored the -moz-hyphens property with nary lang a attribute in sight.  We might ask how that’s supposed to work, since hyphenation dictionaries are language-dependent, but never mind: it did.  Firefox 17, on the other hand, requires a lang attribute value in order to apply hyphens (note the lack of prefix).

I haven’t gone running down the behavior of other browsers, because the upshot is this: if you want hyphenation to work in a future-friendly way, you need a lang attribute.  What older versions do will become of fading relevance.

All of which raises a fairly important question: should you enable hyphenation?

After all, hyphenation, I am told, was invented to increase the density of text and reduce the number of column inches needed in printed media, where paper can be expensive and space at a premium.  Hyphenation, in other words, was devised as a trick to let authors be a little bit more wordy.  (Also as a way to help reduce interword spacing in fully justified text.)

On the web, of course, we have no physical length constraints: The Web Ain’t Print.  We can run on as long as we like, limited only by our thesaurus, our RSI flare-ups, and the attention span of our readers.

But wait…that’s all true for the desktop web.  We have lovely big monitors and easily resizeable windows and zoomable text.  On mobile devices, however, the real estate is much more limited.  We still have infinite length, yes, but line lengths tend to be a lot shorter on iPhone or Android—particularly if you’ve given your mobile users a nicely readble font size.

Right after PPK’s article hit my aggregator, I turned on hyphenation here on meyerweb.  For desktop reading, at first it caught my eye a bit, but now I don’t see it at all.  Years and years of print reading has made it seem familiar.  Things would be just fine without the hyphens, of course.  But when reading pages on mobile, the hyphens feel useful.  They give me a little bit more reading for each “screenful”, and just feel comfortable.

Thus my recommendation of the moment: if you’re going to use CSS hyphenation, turn it on for mobile contexts.  For desktop—well, that’s a much murkier call.  It may well depend on your font family, layout, default language, and so on.  If you do turn them on, just make sure you have that lang attribute (I put mine on the html element) so your hyphens will persist.

Pricing ‘CSS:The Definitive Guide’

When I announced the serial publication of CSS: The Definitive Guide, Fourth Edition, I failed to address the question how pricing will work.  Well, more decided to break it out into its own post, really.  As it turns out, there are two components to the answer.

First component is the pricing of the pre-books.  Roughly speaking, each pre-book will be priced according to its length.  The assumed base for the electronic version is $2.99, and $7.99 for the print version, with significantly longer pre-books (say, one where two chapters are combined) priced somewhat higher.  How much higher depends on the length.  It’s possible that prices will drift a bit over time as production or printing costs change, but there’s no way to guarantee that.  We’re basically pricing them as they come out.

At the end of the process, when all the chapters are written and bundled into an omnibus book edition, there will be discounts tied to the chapters you’ve already purchased.  The more chapters you bought ahead, the deeper the discount.  If you bought the pre-books direct from O’Reilly, then you’ll automatically get a discount code tailored to the number of pre-book you’ve already bought.  If you bought them elsewhere, then O’Reilly’s customer service will work to create a comparable discount, though that will obviously be a slower process.

The second component is: how much will the codes cut the price of the final, complete book?  That I cannot say.  The reason is that I don’t know (nor does anyone) what minimum price O’Reilly will need to charge to cover its costs while taking into account the money already paid.  I’m hopeful that if you bought all of the pre-books, then the electronic version of the final book will be very close to free, but again, we have to see where things stand once we reach that point.  It might be that the production costs of the complete book mean that it’s still a couple of bucks even at the deepest discount, but we’ll see!  One of the exciting things about this experiment is that even my editor and I don’t know exactly how it will all turn out.  We really are forging a new trail here, one that I hope will benefit other authors—and, by direct extension, readers—in the future.

‘CSS: The Definitive Guide’, Fourth Edition

I’m really excited to announce that CSS: The Definitive Guide, Fourth Edition, is being released one piece at a time.

As announced last week on the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing blog, the next edition of CSS:TDG will be released chapter by chapter.  As each one is finished, it will go into production right away instead of waiting for the entire omnibus book to be completed.  You’ll be able to get each standalone as an e-book, a print-on-demand paper copy, or even as both if that’s how you roll.  I’ve taken to calling these “pre-books”, which I hope isn’t too confusing or inaccurate.

There are a lot of advantages to this, which I wrote about in some detail for the TOC post.  Boiled down, they are: accuracy, agility, and à la carte.  If you have the e-book version, then updates can be downloaded for free as errata are corrected or rewrites are triggered by changes to CSS itself.  And, of course, you can only buy the pre-books that interest you, if you don’t feel like you need the whole thing.

I should clarify that not every pre-book is a single chapter; occasionally, more than one chapter of the final product will be bundled together into a single pre-book.  For example, Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade is actually chapters 2 and 3 of the final book combined.  It just made no sense to sell them separately, so we didn’t.  “Values, Units, and Colors”. on the other hand, is Chapter 4 all by itself.  (So if anyone was wondering about the pricing differences between those two pre-books, there’s your explanation.)

If you want to see what the e-book versions are like, CSS and Documents (otherwise known as Chapter 1) has been given the low, low price of $0.00.  Give it a whirl, see if you like the way the pre-books work as bits.

My current plan is to work through the chapters sequentially, but I’m always willing to depart from that plan if it seems like a good idea.  What amuses me about all this is the way the writing of CSS: The Definitive Guide has come to mirror CSS itself—split up into modules that can be tackled independently of the others, and eventually collected into a snapshot tome that reflects a point in time instead of an overarching version number.

Every pre-book is a significantly updated version of their third-edition counterparts, though of course a great deal of material has stayed the same.  In some cases I rewrote or rearranged existing sections for greater clarity, and in all but “CSS and Documents” I’ve added a fair amount of new material.  I think they’re just as useful today as the older editions were in their day, and I hope you’ll agree.

Just to reiterate, these are the three pre-books currently available:

  • CSS and Documents (free) — the basics of CSS and how it’s associated with HTML, covering things like link and style as well as obscure topics like HTTP header linking
  • Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade — including all of the level 3 selectors, examples of use, and how conflicts are resolved
  • Values, Units, and Colors — fairly up to date, including HSL/HSLa/RGBa and the full run of X11-based keywords, and also the newest units except for the very, very latest—and as they firm up and gain support, we’ll add them into an update!

As future pre-books come out, I’ll definitely announce them here and in the usual social spaces.  I really think this is a good move for the book and the topic, and I’m very excited to explore this method of publishing with O’Reilly!

Cicadients

I’ve been a fan of “The Cicada Principle” since it was first published.  After wandering through a CSS gradients gallery or two back in April, it occurred to me that it ought to be simple to merge the two things.  So I did: thus was born “Cicadients”.  It took me until now to actually blog about it because, well, you know, things were, hey, what’s that weird thing over there?

What?

As a recap, the Cicada Principle states that if you pick a few simple patterns that repeat at prime-number intervals, you can create complicated patterns that only repeat at intervals that are the product of the individual intervals.  For example, if you have patterns that repeat every 3, 5, and 7 pixels (respectively), the combination of the three will repeat every 3×5×7 pixels, which is to say every 105 pixels.  Bump up the intervals, and you get some truly staggering numbers.  For example, shift up to 7, 11, and 13 pixels and their combination repeat every 1,001 pixels; combining 11, 13, and 17 gets you 2,431; combining 13, 17, and 23 yields 5,083.

The examples presented in the original article use semi-opaque PNGs to achieve this effect.  All I did was replace their images with images of my own; to wit, CSS gradients.  (Yes, gradients are images, every bit as much as any PNG.  They’re just described differently.)  In doing so, I not only reduced server hits, but I also saved a fair number of bytes.  In the first case, I did so while achieving pixel-perfect fidelity to the original.  In the second case, I didn’t make it exactly the same as the original, but I got fairly close in 0.63KB (2.81KB with prefixes).  I could probably get closer to the original with a little more effort—a couple of my gradients are a little too smeary—but that will probably wait a while, if I ever get to it at all.  But, again, the final result is a kilobyte or two; the original example was 23KB plus extra server hits.

That was the real reason for my efforts, aside from the simple pleasure of doing it: to find out how much more efficient a gradient could be than a raster image in appropriate situations.  I had expected some savings with gradients, but I was frankly astounded by how much was saved.  You can do a lot more with gradients than sunset backgrounds and lickable button highlights.

Of course, gradients are not right for every situation: the third example in “The Cicada Principle”, for example, should only be done with gradients as an example of how not to do it.  Possibly also as a public declaration of deep masochistic tendencies.  Either way, you’d probably crash browsers, and that’s currently the job of radial gradients.

I’ll be very interested to see if people come up with their own cicadient examples.  If you do, let us know about them in the comments!

Visualizing Colors Again

Just a quick followup on HSL color visualizations and CSS: The Definitive Guide.

To take those two things in reverse, I got word from my editor that color is definitely an option for the book, though the exact form it will take is not 100% certain.  The options range from an insert of color plates to printing color on a per-page as-needed basis, and it’s hard right now to know what will make the most sense for the book and its price.  We’re hoping for the per-page approach, but it will depend on just how fast color prices plunge in the near(ish) future and what the book requires.  The glorious, glorious upshot is that I can abandon all thought of grayscale requirements and only concentrate on avoiding light yellows, which I guess print badly.

As for visualizations, I created another to go with the HSL-16 and HSL-147 visualizations I mentioned in an earlier post:

  • Getting HSL from RGB — a look at how the arrangement and fading of the three primaries yields the complete hue wheel.  Its point is a little less obvious than the others, but (I hope) only by a little.  If you’ve ever wondered how RGB and the hue part of HSL relate to each other, this visualization should help answer the question.

I think I’m done with visualizing colors for now, but I think I said that before, so you never know.  I mean, you know, colors, man!  What do they mean?

Combining ‘nth-of-type()’ With Negation

I just recently came across one of those things that’s really obvious once you stop to think about it, and might be really obvious if you think about it from the right angle, but can trip you up if you come at it from a slightly different direction.

Consider the following two rules, which are equivalent:

li:not(.skip):nth-of-type(odd);
li:nth-of-type(odd):not(.skip);

First off, the order doesn’t matter.  The result is exactly the same no matter which way you write it, which is why I wrote the same thing twice.

Either way, the selector will select the odd-numbered li elements that share a common parent, but not those which have a class of skip.  What it does not do is select the odd-numbered li elements without a class of skip that share a common parent.

Did you catch the distinction?  Natural-language ambiguity (languaguity?) may obscure the precise meaning.  Here’s some example markup (adapted from a test file I set up):

<ul>
   <li>Item 1</li>
   <li>Item 2</li>
   <li class="skip">Item 3</li>
   <li>Item 4</li>
   <li>Item 5</li>
   <li>Item 6</li>
</ul>

The list items selected by either of the previous selectors will be numbers 1 and 5.  Numbers 4 and 6 will never be selected, because they are not odd-numbered members of this set of li elements.  Remember, nth-of-type() refers to element types, as in li or p or h4.  It doesn’t refer to “this type of thing that I am trying to describe here in this whole selector”.

Another way of stating this is that the negation pseudo-class does not act as a filter for the :nth-of-type() portion of the selector.  There is no “do this, then that” ordering of pseudo-classes.  They must both apply, considered independently of each other, for an element to be matched.  (This may remind you of the effects caused by the lack of element proximity, though the root causes are rather different.)

There is a (fairly solid-looking) proposal in CSS4 Selectors called :nth-match() that should allow authors to set up a condition where list items 4 and 6 get selected—for example, :nth-match(odd of li:not(.skip)), unless of course the syntax gets changed—but that’s for the future.  For now, if you need to select every other element of a matched set, you’ll need some scripting to help you out.

Visualizing Colors in HSL Space

I’ve been working through and rewriting the chapters of CSS: The Definitive Guide for its fourth edition, and at present I’m nearing the end of chapter 4, “Values and Units”.  That means I just worked through the color values, which required a lot more of a rewrite than you might think.  After all, when the third edition came out, RGBa, HSL, and HSLa weren’t viable options, so they didn’t get coverage.  Expanding the color-values section to incorporate them posed two major challenges.

First, I couldn’t just drop them in as add-ons; the whole section had to be partially rearranged, and chunks of the text rewritten or replaced.  Okay, yes, I admit, that’s par for the new-edition course, and I’m not complaining so much as describing.  The far more troubling challenge: how to explain HSL in a grayscale book.

(I should note that I’m hoping to convince O’Reilly to make the move to color, even though that likely means reshooting damn near every figure in the text.  Even if full color for 600-700 pages is not economically viable, which has always been the problem in the past, then I’m hoping for at least a set of color plates.  We’ll see!  At present, though, I have to assume we’ll be committing grayscale to paper.)

Partly the challenge here is one of clear explanation and illustration, which is never easy even in the most ideal of environments; but the other part is that I’ve never really been comfortable with HSL.  I know it’s held to be far more intuitive than RGB, but I have 30 years of RGB experience and next to no HSL experience.  I can’t help but have that color my perception (ah HA ha).

In an effort to overcome my discomfort, I started messing around with the relationships between HSL and more familiar colors, starting with keyword sets.  I’ve spun two visualizations out of that effort:

  • HTML4 Color Keywords in HSL—wherein I map the sixteen color keywords defined in HTML4 onto an HSL color wheel and grayscale bar.  What I really like about the end result is the clear evidence of careful color selection.  It’s a balanced set, at least mathematically, and seeing the relationships between the colors and thus how to present them helped me develop a fair amount of HSL intuition.

    This was also an excuse to attempt cleverness with CSS Transforms.  The results please me.

  • SVG/CSS3 Color Keyword Distribution—mapping out how the full set of 147 SVG/CSS3 (neé X11) color keywords are distributed around the hue wheel.  Not very well, as it turns out.  I don’t know that this taught me very much about HSL itself, but I did get a firmer grip on the interplay between saturation, lightness, and luminance, all of which helped a great deal in the arrangement of the ‘spikes’.

    This one turned into an excuse to play with canvas drawing, after Mårten Björk responded to a Twitter request with a huge head start on the problem.  Originally, this was going to be another Transformapalooza, but I’m glad it went in this direction instead.

Thanks to these visualizations and (more importantly) the programming and thinking I did to create them, I’m now much more comfortable with HSL.  As a result, the “HSL and HSLa Colors” section of chapter 4 is a lot better than it would have been.  I even came up with what I think are some pretty good ways for illustrating HSL in a grayscale environment and ways to link it to the RGB model for the benefit of people like me.  The book will be a lot better for it when it finally comes out.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the visualizations!

February 2017
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