With a little help from pseudo-selectors

This article was translated into russian language and published as Полезные псевдо-селекторы on Frontender Magazine (@frontenderinfo).
There are plenty of lesser known CSS (pseudo-)selectors available to help you write cleaner HTML structure. This not only reduces the number of classes you have to use in your HTML, but in some cases also diminish or abolish the logic required to determine whether certain element needs a particular class or not (i.e. it is the only element, attribute contains certain string etc.). And in some cases the latter also means dynamically writing to DOM, which we know is bad for performance.

I will point out the ones which seems to me less ubiquitous, yet very useful in some situations. I will skip out some selectors, like :first-child(), :last-child(), :nth-child(), :nth-last-child(), :before and :after, which deserve to be mentioned, but are already quite well known and broadly used.

:not() and :matches()

The negation pseudo-class: :not() and the matches-any pseudo-class: :matches() are recent additions to the specs, :matches not well supported, but :not() is.


E:matches(s1, s2)
an E element that matches compound selector s1 and/or compound selector s2

I personally think :not is among the best additions to the CSS. There are plenty of use cases, especially in combination with other pseudo-selectos, such as :first-child or :last-child (i.e. you want padding/margin for every element except for the first or last one).


E:not(s1, s2)
an E element that does not match either compound selector s1 or compound selector s2
li:not(:first-child) { }

:empty and :only-child()

They are among many structural pseudo-classes, but especially these two seems to be somehow the lesser known, yet quite useful.

Pseudo class only-child() is useful when you want more/less margin/padding if the the element contains only one child element; or you might decrease font-size in case of multiple child elements.


an E element, only child of its parent
.items li { margin: 5px 0; font-size: 1.2em; }
.items li:only-child { margin: 0; font-size: 1.5em; }

The selector is in fact the same as elem:last-child():first-child().


an E element that has no children (not even text nodes)
Keep in mind that even new line is considered a text node, so structure your HTML accordingly.

.items-container:empty { background-image: url('./path/to/no-items-bg.png'); }

You can read more about these two and other at tree-structural pseudo-classes.


The :local-link pseudo-class allows you to style links that points to the same domain as the current is and differentiate them from external links.


matches any link within this domain
matches any link within this domain until the first slash (ie: galjot.si/)
the same as above, but it goes until the second slash
the same as above, but it goes until the nth slash

This allows you to get rid of an extra class in your HTML if you want to style your internal links.

Apart from :local-link, there are other well known location pseudo classes, as :link (not yet visited) and :visited (target which user has already visited), that I would like to see more frequently used, especially on content-based websites where they come handy, but there are rather some security considerations about this issue regarding attacks on a user's history through CSS :visited selectors.

For privacy reasons, browsers strictly limit the styles you can apply using an element selected by this pseudo-class (:visited): color, background-color, border-color, outline-color, column-rule-color, fill and stroke. Source: Privacy and the :visited selector.

But if you think that's #bada55, you should check the following (via @krofdrakula):

User interface related states pseudo-classes

The following pseudo-selectors consist of two categories, input pseudo-classes and user action pseudo-classes.

  • :enabled and :disabled
  • :checked
  • :default
  • :indeterminate
  • :read-only and :read-write
  • :valid and :invalid
  • :in-range and :out-of-range
  • :required and :optional
  • :user-error
  • :active-drop-target, :valid-drop-target and :invalid-drop-target


input[type="checkbox"]:checked { }
input:disabled { }

The above are much needed for good user interface design of web applications that require user input. All these are quite self-explanatory, but not all are yet confirmed and final (some currently in draft), so you might check their latest status here.

Substring matching

The following are a part of attribute selectors and are the only ones mentioned in this article that are not pseudo-selectos, but are similar in their behaviour.


an E element whose foo attribute value begins exactly with the string "bar"
a[href^="http://twitter.com"] { }


an E element whose foo attribute value ends exactly with the string bar
a[href$='.pdf'] { }
a[href$='.doc'] { }
a[href$='.xls'] { }
a[href$='.rss'] { }


an E element whose foo attribute value contains the substring bar
p[class*='post'] { }

:first-line, :first-letter

This one differs a bit from the above selectors, but when used subtly, can add a lot to the content design and add aesthetic appeal. These techniques has been a part of print design for ages, see these beautiful slides. You should also take a look at Jon Tan's 12 Examples of Paragraph Typography, an article written way back in 2008, solely relying on selectors to achieve beautiful effects.

You might also want to read Drop Caps: Historical Use And Current Best Practices With CSS , where Laura Franz devoted a whole article to drop caps.


Colors might have a different meaning in different cultures, so it is now possible to change styles accordingly, with :lang selector. The :lang() pseudo-class accepts comma-separated list of one ore more language ranges as its argument. Example:


Learn more about the language pseudo-class :lang().

There are plenty of more, but I have only pointed out the ones that seems interesting, yet not so frequently used. If you want to find out more about the topic, or contribute, visit Selectors Level 4.

blog comments powered by Disqus