Understanding Pseudo-Element :before and :after

By . Filed in Web Design

Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) is primarily intended for applying styles to the HTML markup, however in some cases when adding extra markup to the document is redundant or not possible, there is actually a feature in CSS that allows us to add extra markup without disrupting the actual document, namely the pseudo-elements.

You have heard of this term, especially when you have been following some of our tutorials.

There are actually a few CSS family members that are classified as pseudo-elements such as the :first-line, :first-letter, ::selection, :before and :after. But, for this article, we will limit our coverage to only the :before and :after, “pseudo-elements” here will specifically refer to both of them. We will look into this particular subject from basics.

The Syntax and Browser Support

The pseudo-elements have actually been around since CSS1, but the :before and :after that we are discussing here were released in CSS2.1. At the beginning, the pseudo-elements use single-colon for the syntax, then as the web evolved, in CSS3 the pseudo-elements were revised to use double-colon – becoming ::before & ::after – to distinguish it with pseudo-classes (i.e. :hover, :active, and so on).

However, whether you use the single-colon or the double-colon format, the browsers will still recognize either. And since Internet Explorer 8 only supports the single-colon format it is safer to use the single-colon if you want wider browser compatibility.

What does it do?

In short, the pseudo-elements will insert an extra element before or after the content’s element, so when we add them both, they are technically equal, with the following markup.

<p>
<span>:before</span> 
	This the main content. 
<span>:after</span>
</p>

But those elements are not actually generated on the document. They are still visible on the surface but you will not find them on the document source, so practically speaking they are fake elements.

Using pseudo-elements

Using pseudo-elements is relatively easy; the following syntax selector:before will add an element before the content’s selector while this syntax selector:after will add after it, and to add a content inside them we can use the content property.

For example, the snippet below will add a quotation mark before and after the blockquote.

blockquote:before {
	content: open-quote;
}
blockquote:after {
	content: close-quote;
}

Styling pseudo-elements

Despite being a fake element, the pseudo-elements actually act like a “real” element; we are able to add any styles declaration upon them, such as changing the color, adding background, adjusting the font size, aligning the text inside it and so forth.

blockquote:before {
	content: open-quote;
	font-size: 24pt;
	text-align: center;
	line-height: 42px;
	color: #fff;
	background: #ddd;
	float: left;
	position: relative;
	top: 30px;

}
blockquote:after {
	content: close-quote;
	font-size: 24pt;
	text-align: center;
	line-height: 42px;
	color: #fff;
	background: #ddd;
	float: right;
	position: relative;
	bottom: 40px;
}

Specifying the dimension

The generated elements are by default an inline-level element, so when we are about to specify the height and the width, we have to first define it as a block element using the display: block declaration.

blockquote:before {
	content: open-quote;
	font-size: 24pt;
	text-align: center;
	line-height: 42px;
	color: #fff;
	background: #ddd;
	float: left;
	position: relative;
	top: 30px;
	border-radius: 25px;

	/** define it as a block element **/
	display: block;
	height: 25px;
	width: 25px;
}
blockquote:after {
	content: close-quote;
	font-size: 24pt;
	text-align: center;
	line-height: 42px;
	color: #fff;
	background: #ddd;
	float: right;
	position: relative;
	bottom: 40px;
	border-radius: 25px;

	/** define it as a block element **/
	display: block;
	height: 25px;
	width: 25px;
}

Attach background image

We can also replace the content with an image rather than only plain text. Although the content property provides a url() string to insert an image, but in most cases I much prefer using the background property for more control over the image attached.

blockquote:before {
	content: " ";
	font-size: 24pt;
	text-align: center;
	line-height: 42px;
	color: #fff;
	float: left;
	position: relative;
	top: 30px;
	border-radius: 25px;

	background: url(images/quotationmark.png) -3px -3px #ddd;

	display: block;
	height: 25px;
	width: 25px;
}
blockquote:after {
	content: " ";
	font-size: 24pt;
	text-align: center;
	line-height: 42px;
	color: #fff;
	float: right;
	position: relative;
	bottom: 40px;
	border-radius: 25px;

	background: url(images/quotationmark.png) -1px -32px #ddd;

	display: block;
	height: 25px;
	width: 25px;
}

However, as you can see from the snippet above, we are still declaring the content property and this time with an empty string. The content property is a requirement and should always be applied; otherwise the pseudo-element will not work whatsoever.

Combining with pseudo-classes

Although they are a different kind of pseudo, we can use the pseudo-classes along with pseudo-elements together in one CSS rule, for instance, if we want to turn the quotation mark background a bit darker when we hover over the blockquote.

blockquote:hover:after, blockquote:hover:before {
	background-color: #555;
}

Adding Transition Effect

And we can even apply the transition property upon them to create a graceful color transition effect.

transition: all 350ms;
-o-transition: all 350ms;
-moz-transition: all 350ms;
-webkit-transition: all 350ms;

Unfortunately though, the transition effect seems to only work in the latest version of Firefox. Hopefully more browsers will catch up to allow the transition property to be applied in pseudo-elements in the future.

More Inspiration

To inspire you, we have selected three cool examples that can give you ideas for your web design.

Fascinating Shadows

In this tutorial Paul Underwood explained how to create a more realistic and fascinating shadow effect using :before and :after pseudo-elements. Both of them are positioned absolutely and placed at the very rear with negative z-index value.

3D Button

This is a very clever implementation of pseudo-elements combined with css3 box-shadow to draw a stunning beveled 3D button only with CSS and a single anchor tag. The :before pseudo-element is used to add number “1” at the left side of the button.

Stacked Image Effect

Using the pseudo-elements for creating a messy stacked image effect only with a single image on the markup is also possible. The pseudo-elements is used to create an illusion of the stacked images at the rear of the actual image using negative z-index.

Conclusion

Pseudo-elements is simply “cool” and ultimately usable, basically we have two bonus elements for every element we add without interfering with the actual HTML structure at all, and then turning them to almost everything we can ever imagine.

There are actually some improvement for pseudo-elements that is currently being worked on, such as nesting pseudo-elements div::before::before { content: ''; } and multiple pseudo-elements div::before(3) { content: ''; } which obviously will open much more possibilities in web design practice in the future. While they are being implemented in current browsers, let’s wait patiently for now.

Author:

Thoriq is a writer for hongkiat.com. He is also a web developer with very unpredictable sleep cycle.

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