Digging Into The Display Property: The Two Values Of Display

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Rachel Andrew is a web developer, writer and speaker. She is the author of a number of books, including The New CSS Layout. She is one of the people behind the … More about Rachel ↬

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We talk a lot about Flexbox and CSS Grid Layout, but these layout methods are essentially values of the CSS display property, a workhorse of a property that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Rachel Andrew takes a better look in a short series. Rachel is going to take a look at the way that the values of display are defined in the Level 3 specification. This is a change to how we defined display in earlier versions of CSS. While it may seem unusual at first, we think these changes really help to explain what is going on when we change the value of display on an element.

A flex or grid layout starts out with you declaring display: flex or display: grid. These layout methods are values of the CSS display property. We tend not to talk about this property on its own very much, instead concentrating on the values of flex or grid, however, there are some interesting things to understand about display and how it is defined that will make your life much easier as you use CSS for layout.

In this article, the first in a short series, I’m going to take a look at the way that the values of display are defined in the Level 3 specification. This is a change to how we defined display in earlier versions of CSS. While it may seem unusual at first for those of us who have been doing CSS for many years, I think these changes really help to explain what is going on when we change the value of display on an element.

Block And Inline Elements

One of the first things we teach people who are new to CSS are the concepts of block and inline elements. We will explain that some elements on the page are display: block and they have certain features because of this. They stretch out in the inline direction, taking up as much space as is available to them. They break onto a new line; we can give them width, height, margin as well as padding, and these properties will push other elements on the page away from them.

We also know that some elements are display: inline. Inline elements are like words in a sentence; they don’t break onto a new line, but instead reserve a character of white space between them. If you add margins and padding, this will display but it won’t push other elements away.

The behavior of block and inline elements is fundamental to CSS and the fact that a properly marked up HTML document will be readable by default. This layout is referred to as “Block and Inline Layout” or “Normal Flow” because this is the way that elements lay themselves out if we don’t do anything else to them.

Inner And Outer Values Of display

We understand block and inline elements, but what happens if we make an item display: grid? Is this something completely different? If we look at a component on which we have specified display: grid, in terms of the parent element in the layout it behaves like a block level element. The element will stretch out and take up as much space in the inline dimension as is available, it will start on a new line. It behaves just like a block element in terms of how it behaves alongside the rest of the layout. We haven’t said display: block though, or have we?

It turns out that we have. In Level 3 of the Display specification, the value of display is defined as two keywords. These keywords define the outer value of display, which will be inline or block and therefore define how the element behaves in the layout alongside other elements. They also define the inner value of the element — or how the direct children of that element behave.

This means that when you say display: grid, what you are really saying is display: block grid. You are asking for a block level grid container. An element that will have all of the block attributes — you can give it height and width, margin and padding, and it will stretch to fill the container. The children of that container, however, have been given the inner value of grid so they become grid items. How those grid items behave is defined in the CSS Grid Specification: the display spec gives us a way to tell the browser that this is the layout method we want to use.

I think that this way of thinking about display is incredibly helpful; it directly explains what we are doing with various layout methods. If you were to specify display: inline flex, what would you expect? Hopefully, a box that behaves as an inline element, with children that are flex items.

There are a few other things neatly explained by thinking about display in this new way, and I’ll take a look at some of these in the rest of this article.

We Are Always Going Back To Normal Flow

When thinking about these inner and outer display properties, it can be helpful to consider what happens if we don’t mess around with the value of display at all. If you write some HTML and view it in a browser, what you get is Block and Inline Layout, or Normal Flow. The elements display as block or inline elements.

See the Pen Block and Inline Layout by Rachel Andrew.

See the Pen Block and Inline Layout by Rachel Andrew.

The example below contains some markup that I have turned into a media object, by making the div display: flex (the two direct children) now become flex items, so the image is now in a row with the content. If you see in the content, however, there is a heading and a paragraph which are displaying in normal flow again. The direct children of the media object became flex items; their children return to normal flow unless we change the value of display on the flex item. The flex container itself is a block box, as you can see by the fact the border extends to the edge of its parent.

See the Pen Block and Inline Layout With Flex Component by Rachel Andrew.

See the Pen Block and Inline Layout With Flex Component by Rachel Andrew.

If you work with this process, the fact that elements on your page will lay themselves out with this nice readable normal flow layout, rather than fighting against it and trying to place everything, CSS is much easier. You are also less likely to fall into accessibility issues, as you are working with the document order, which is exactly what a screen reader or a person tabbing through the document is doing.

Explaining flow-root And inline-block

The value of inline-block is also likely to be familiar to many of us who have been doing CSS for a while. This value is a way to get some of the block behavior on an inline element. For example, an inline-block element can have a width and a height. An element with display: inline-block also behaves in an interesting way in that it creates a Block Formatting Content (BFC).

A BFC does some useful things in terms of layout, for example, it contains floats. To read about Block Formatting Contexts in more detail see my previous article “Understanding CSS Layout And The Block Formatting Context.” Therefore saying display: inline-block gives you an inline box which also establishes a BFC.

As you will discover (if you read the above-mentioned article about the Block Formatting Context), there is a newer value of display which also explicitly creates a BFC. This is the value of flow-root. This value creates a BFC on a block, rather than an inline element.

  • display: inline-block gives you a BFC on an inline box.
  • display: flow-root gives you a BFC on a block box.

You are now probably thinking that is all a bit confusing: why do we have two completely different keywords here, and what happened to the two-value syntax we were talking about before? This leads neatly into the next thing I need to explain about display, i.e. the fact that CSS has a history we need to deal with in terms of the display property.

Legacy Values Of Display

The CSS2 Specification detailed the following values for the display property:

  • inline
  • block
  • inline-block
  • list-item
  • none
  • table
  • inline-table

Also defined were the various table internal properties such as table-cell which we are not dealing with in this article.

We then added to these some values for display, to support flex and grid layout:

  • grid
  • inline-grid
  • flex
  • inline-flex

Note: The specification also defines ruby and inline-ruby to support Ruby Text which you can read about in the Ruby specification.

These are all single values for the display property, defined before the specification was updated to explain CSS Layout in this way. Something very important about CSS is the fact that we don’t go around breaking the web; we can’t simply change things. We can’t suddenly decide that everyone should use this new two-value syntax and therefore every website ever built that used the single value syntax will break unless a developer goes back and fixes it!

While thinking about this problem, you may enjoy this list of mistakes in the design of CSS which are less mistakes in many cases as things that were designed without a crystal ball to see into the future! However, the fact is that we can’t break the web, which is why we have this situation where right now browsers support a set of single values for display, and the specification is moving to two values for display.

The way we get around this is to specify legacy and short values for display, which includes all of these single values. This means that a mapping can be defined between single values and new two keyword values. Which gives us the following table of values:

Single ValueTwo-Keyword ValuesDescription
blockblock flowBlock box with normal flow inner
flow-rootblock flow-rootBlock box defining a BFC
inlineinline flowInline box with normal flow inner
inline-blockinline flow-rootInline box defining a BFC
list-itemblock flow list-itemBlock box with normal flow inner and additional marker box
flexblock flexBlock box with inner flex layout
inline-flexinline flexInline box with inner flex layout
gridblock gridBlock box with inner grid layout
inline-gridinline gridInline box with inner grid layout
tableblock tableBlock box with inner table layout
inline-tableinline tableInline box with inner table layout

To explain how this works, we can think about a grid container. In the two-value world, we would create a block level grid container with:

.container {
    display: block grid;

However, the legacy keyword means that the following does the same thing:

.container {
    display: grid;

If, instead, we wanted an inline grid container, in the two-value world we would use:

.container {
    display: inline grid;

And if using the legacy values:

.container {
    display: inline-grid;

We can now go back to where this conversation began and look at display: inline-block. Looking at the table, you can see that this is defined in the two-value world as display: inline flow-root. It now matches display: flow-root which in a two-value world would be display: block flow-root. A little bit of tidying up and clarification of how these things are defined. A refactoring of CSS, if you like.

Browser Support For The Two-Value Syntax

As yet, browsers do not support the two-value syntax for the display property. The implementation bug for Firefox can be found here. Implementation — when it happens — would essentially involve aliasing the legacy values to the two-value versions. It’s likely to be a good while, therefore, before you can actually use these two-value versions in your code. However, that really isn’t the point of this article. Instead, I think that looking at the values of display in the light of the two-value model helps explain much of what is going on.

When you define layout on a box in CSS, you are defining what happens to this box in terms of how it behaves in relation to all of the other boxes in the layout. You are also defining how the children of that box behave. You can think in this way long before you can explicitly declare the values as two separate things, as the legacy keywords map to those values, and it will help you understand what happens when you change the value of display.

Further Reading