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Subtleties with Self-Chained Classes

Written by on CSS Wizardry.

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This is a really short post to publish an email thread I just had with a client-turned-friend who’d emailed me asking for a bit of advice concerning self-chained classes (e.g. {}).

The question was basically surrounding the number of ‘links’ in the chain and its relation, if any, to the number of times that class appears in the HTML. That is to say, does {} equate to specifically class="foo foo", and {} to class="foo foo foo", and so on?

Client, to me:

Hi there,

Hope you are well.

I wanted to check with you on a CSS thingy: I was convinced that this would render three differently coloured texts, but it doesn’t [they’re all blue] and I can’t find any explanation online:

.column { color: red; }
.column.column { color: green; }
.column.column.column { color: blue; }


Why does it do that?

Me, to my client:


All good here thanks. In sunny London working for a really cool client. How are you? And everyone else…?

Hmm. This is a funny one! Surprisingly, they’re all the same selector.

.color {} says ‘Is there a class of color?’

.color.color {} doesn’t say ‘Are there two classes of color?’, it just asks the same question twice. It doesn’t actually do any ‘counting’ in the HTML. It’s a subtle but important difference, as you’ve found out!

If you do want to style based on ‘counting’ the number of classes in your markup, you could rewrite it as this:

[class="column"] { color: red; }
[class="column column"] { color: green; }
[class="column column column"] { color: blue; }


This will give you the expected behaviour, and handily all three selectors have the same specificity as each other. You’ll remember from the workshop how self-chaining classes increases the selector’s specificity correspondingly (allowing us to Hack Specificity). Well that’s not going to be a side effect here.

What’s the use case for it anyway? Seems a little funky to be honest. :P Naturally I would suggest trying to avoid doing either.

So yeah. Chaining classes doesn’t actually count (or look out for) n classes in your markup, it just asks the same question n times.

If, for whatever reason, you do need to ‘count’ the number of classes, you’ll need to hard-code an attribute selector with the exact number in there. This will be quite brittle as the whitespace is stringified as well, so if your template puts classes on a new line (or anything like that) the string will no longer match. Plus, we’re not technically counting anything: we’re looking out for an exact string that we just happen to have typed the same sequence of characters into several times.

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Hi there, I’m Harry Roberts. I am an award-winning Consultant Web Performance Engineer, designer, developer, writer, and speaker from the UK. I write, Tweet, speak, and share code about measuring and improving site-speed. You should hire me.

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