Climbing down trees

Just in case anyone isn’t clear on this, I’m going to explain, in detail, how to descend the object tree with your CSS selectors. Let me know if I’ve skipped or glossed over any important details. Return any hand-waving in kind.

If you’re thinking WTF is an object tree?, you should know that I often just make up names. Hopefully in this case it proves descriptive.
I think of HTML as a tree: At the tree’s top is the <html> tag; Its descendants are all the tags nested within it.

			example page

In the example above, the children of <html> are <head> and <body>. The <title> tag is not it’s child, but it’s grandchild – <title> is <head>’s child and a descendant of <html>.

If we think about it like this, then a webpage is described by a tree of objects.

In CSS we can start from anywhere in the tree, and descend by separating two selectors by a space.

Note: CSS will give priority to the most specific selector that applies to an object.

Say we’re building a website that has a main section, and a sidebar — our HTML might look something like this:

<div id="main_section">
<h1>main heading</h1>
some text in the main section
<div id="sidebar_section">
<h2>sidebar heading</h2>
some text in the sidebar

In many situations, we’d want the text to differ in style between sections:

#main_section, #main_section p, #main_section h1 {
   color: #000;
#main, #main p {
   font-size: 9pt;
#sidebar, #sidebar p, #sidebar h1 {
   color: #999;
   font-size: 7pt;
#sidebar h1 {
   font-weight: bold;

What we’re saying here is:

  1. any text in the main section, and any paragraph tags, or h1s that are its descendants should be black.
  2. any text in the main section, and any paragraphs that descend from it should be 9pt in size
  3. any text in the sidebar, as well as any paragraph or h1 tags that descend from it should be grey and 7pt
  4. any h1s who descend from sidebar should be bold

Note: #sidebar refers to an object whose id is sidebar (ex: <div id=”sidebar”>)

Note: Use commas to list all selectors you wish your CSS block to be applied to

#sidebar p {
  font-size: 7pt;
#sidebar h1 {
  font-size: 7pt;

is functionally equivalent to

#sidebar p, #sidebar h1 {
  font-size: 7pt;

By using this technique one can make strategic use of classes and ids, rather than adding them to every object one wishes to style – making the HTML even cleaner.

I’m not sure what else to say, so hopefully I’ve helped to clear things up or at least confused the issue. If anyone has any specific examples they think would be helpful, let me know and I’ll add them?



  1. Shaun says:

    This is helpful. I remembered doing this before but couldn’t recall how I had.

    Just so that I am clear, CSS is just a way of specifying the STYLE attribute of an HTML DOM node right? That’s why I can’t do something like set the ONCLICK attribute in CSS?

  2. Brad says:


    yup that is exactly right. The contents of what I was calling the style block can be used as the value of the style attribute for a node.

  3. Brad says:

    also, this is v. powerful when you know the structure of the html – and in many cases you do, or can at least make certain assumptions about it.

  4. k says:

    You are so good at teaching us css =O

    Things are lots clearer now? I’m just a bit fuzzy on what a ‘selector’ is and how to identify things by class rather than id, but I think I can figure those out pretty easily?

  5. Brad says:


    The selector is basically a way of specifying which tags you want the style block associated with.
    To select by class rather than ID, you would use “.” (dot) instead of “#”.

    .current { }
    li.current { }

    The first of those guys would apply to any tag set to be a part of the current class: <hr class=”current” />
    The second to any <li> using that class.

    I use IDs for things that will appear only once and be unique, and classes for things that can appear any number of times.

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