Uncle Jim's CSS-P Tutorials: Introduction to Cascading Style Sheets

Article three of a series by Jim Stiles.

CSS Structure - Applying Style Sheets


There are various methods of incorporating style sheets into an HTML document. Your decision on which method to use should be based on what functions you wish the style sheet to be used for. If you intend for a particular style to be used only for that specific page, then simply place the style sheet inside the HEAD tags of your page. However, if you intend on using a particular style sheet for multiple pages, it would benefit you to place and external link to the style sheet.

Linking Style Sheets to HTML -

This method places the style sheet inside the HEAD of the page you are applying the style to.

Linking to an External Style Sheet -

An external style sheet may be linked to an HTML document through HTML's LINK element:

<LINK REL=StyleSheet HREF="style1.css" TYPE="text/css" MEDIA=screen>
<LINK REL=StyleSheet HREF="color3.css" TYPE="text/css" TITLE="8-bit Color Style" MEDIA="screen, print">
<LINK REL="Alternate StyleSheet" HREF="color-31b.css" TYPE="text/css" TITLE="24-bit Color Style" MEDIA="screen, print">
<LINK REL=StyleSheet HREF="jds.css" TYPE="text/css" MEDIA=jds>

The <LINK> tag is placed in the document HEAD. The optional TYPE attribute is used to specify a media type--text/css for a Cascading Style Sheet--allowing browsers to ignore style sheet types that they do not support. Configuring the server to send text/css as the Content-type for CSS files is also a good idea. External style sheets should not contain any HTML tags like <HEAD> or <STYLE>. The style sheet should consist merely of style rules or statements. A file consisting solely of P { margin: 2em } could be used as an external style sheet.

The <LINK> tag also takes an optional MEDIA attribute, which specifies the medium or media to which the style sheet should be applied. Possible values are:
Multiple media are specified through a comma-separated list or the value all.

Netscape Navigator 4.x incorrectly ignores any linked or embedded style sheets declared with MEDIA values other than screen. For example, MEDIA="screen, projection" will cause the style sheet to be ignored by Navigator 4.x, even if the presentation device is a computer screen. Navigator 4.x also ignores style sheets declared with MEDIA=all.

The REL attribute is used to define the relationship between the linked file and the HTML document. REL=StyleSheet specifies a persistent or preferred style while REL="Alternate StyleSheet" defines an alternate style. A persistent style is one that is always applied when style sheets are enabled. The absence of the TITLE attribute, as in the first <LINK> tag in the example, defines a persistent style.

A preferred style is one that is automatically applied, such as in the second <LINK> tag in the example. The combination of REL=StyleSheet and a TITLE attribute specifies a preferred style. Web developers cannot specify more than one preferred style. An alternate style is indicated by REL="Alternate StyleSheet". The third <LINK> tag in the example defines an alternate style, which the user could choose to replace the preferred style sheet. Note that current browsers generally lack the ability to choose alternate styles.

A single style may also be given through multiple style sheets:
<LINK REL=StyleSheet HREF="basics.css" TITLE="Contemporary">
<LINK REL=StyleSheet HREF="tables.css" TITLE="Contemporary">
<LINK REL=StyleSheet HREF="forms.css" TITLE="Contemporary">

In this example, three style sheets are combined into one "Contemporary" style that is applied as a preferred style sheet. To combine multiple style sheets into a single style, one must use the same TITLE with each style sheet.

An external style sheet is ideal when the style is applied to numerous pages. With an external style sheet, a developer could change the look of an entire site by simply changing one file. As well, most browsers will cache an external style sheet, thus avoiding a delay in page presentation once the style sheet is cached. Microsoft Internet Explorer 3 for Windows 95/NT4 does not support BODY background images or colors from linked style sheets. Given this bug, developers may wish to provide another mechanism for including a background image or color, such as embedding or inlining the style, or by using the BACKGROUND attribute of the BODY element.

Embedding a Style Sheet

A style sheet may be embedded in a document with the STYLE element:
<STYLE TYPE="text/css" MEDIA=screen>
<!--
  BODY  { background: url(foo.gif) red; color: black }
  P EM  { background: yellow; color: black }
  .note { margin-left: 5em; margin-right: 5em }
-->
</STYLE>
The STYLE element is placed in the document HEAD. The required TYPE attribute is used to specify a media type, as is its function with the LINK element. Similarly, the TITLE and MEDIA attributes may also be specified with STYLE. Older browsers, unaware of the STYLE element, would normally show its contents as if they were part of the BODY, thus making the style sheet visible to the user. To prevent this, the contents of the STYLE element should be contained within an SGML comment (<!-- comment -->), as in the preceding example. An embedded style sheet should be used when a single document has a unique style. If the same style sheet is used in multiple documents, then an external style sheet would be more appropriate.

Importing a Style Sheet

A style sheet may be imported with CSS's @import statement. This statement may be used in a CSS file or inside the STYLE element:
<STYLE TYPE="text/css" MEDIA="screen, projection">
<!--
  @import url(http://www.htmlhelp.com/style.css);
  @import url(/stylesheets/punk.css);
  DT { background: yellow; color: black }
-->
</STYLE>
Note that other CSS rules may still be included in the STYLE element, but that all @import statements must occur at the start of the style sheet. Any rules specified in the style sheet itself override conflicting rules in the imported style sheets. For example, even if one of the imported style sheets contained DT {background: aqua}, definition terms would still have a yellow background.

The order in which the style sheets are imported is important in determining how they cascade. In the above example, if the style.css imported style sheet specified that STRONG elements be shown in red and the punk.css style sheet specified that STRONG elements be shown in yellow, then the latter rule would win out, and STRONG elements would be in yellow.

Imported style sheets are useful for purposes of modularity. For example, a site may separate different style sheets by the selectors used. There may be a simple.css style sheet that gives rules for common elements such as BODY, P, H1, and H2. In addition, there may be an extra.css style sheet that gives rules for less common elements such as CODE, BLOCKQUOTE, and DFN. A tables.css style sheet may be used to define rules for table elements. These three style sheets could be included in HTML documents, as needed, with the @import statement. The three style sheets could also be combined via the LINK element.

Next, I will show you how to set different border properties.

<<< Previous | HOME | Next >>>