Using :is() in complex selectors selects more than you might initially think

# To :is() or not to :is()?

Consider this following complex selectors:

.a .b .c {
  background: green;
}
.a :is(.b .c) {
  background: green;
}

They might look the same, but they behave differently … the second selector selects more than you might initially think.

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# Try it out

In this demo below there’s two nested pieces of markup:

<div class="a">
 <div class="b">
  <div class="c"></div>
 </div>
</div>

<div class="b">
 <div class="a">
  <div class="c"></div>
 </div>
</div>

Use the dropdown to see which elements the .a .b .c and .a :is(.b .c) selectors match.

See the Pen CSS Nesting: The implications of :is() by Bramus (@bramus) on CodePen.

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# Explanation

Selectors matching happens from right to left. That means that for these complex selectors the browser will start with its last <complex-selector-unit> (= spec lingo to indicate the individual parts, excluding the combinators) and then move up the chain.

.a .b .c

This selector contains 3 units: .a, .b, and .c. When trying to find matching elements, the browser will first select all .c elements and will then check if they have a .b parent. If that’s the case, it will then check if that .b is a child of a .a element.

.a :is(.b .c)

This selector contains 2 units: .a, and :is(.b .c). The first evaluated unit :is(.b .c), which matches the .c elements that have a .b ancestor. If that’s true, the browser will then continue and check if that matched element – the .c – also has a .a ancestor.

So that .a :is(.b .c) will match all of the .c elements in the snippet shown earlier, as the selector translates to “find me the .c elements that have both a .b and a .a as its ancestors”. That means it will also match this .c:

<div class="a b">
 <div class="c"></div>
</div>

If you can’t follow there, know that .a :is(.b .c) essentially desugars to this set of selectors:

  • .a .b .c
  • .b .a .c
  • .a.b .c

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# Why is this relevant?

While I wouldn’t write a selector like that myself, this is highly relevant because of CSS Nesting that is getting specified. There’s an active discussion within the CSS Working Group on whether Nesting should expand the & using :is() or not.

Consider this nested block:

.b .c {
  .a & {
    background: green;
  }
}

When expanding & to the outer selector wrapped inside a :is() – as it is currently specified in the spec – that snippet would become:

.a :is(.b .c) {
  background: green;
}

This might be counterintuitive for authors who have used Sass and other preprocessors before. Sass simply replaces the & with the outer selector:

.a .b .c {
  background: green;
}

As demonstrated in this post, these behave differently.

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# Anything else about :is()?

As mentioned in an earlier post, there’s more things to know about :is():

  1. The selector list of :is() is forgiving
  2. The specificity of :is() is that of its most specific argument
  3. :is() does not work with pseudo-element selectors (for now)

See https://brm.us/css-is for more details

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# Spread the word

To help spread the contents of this post, feel free to retweet its announcement tweet:

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Published by Bramus!

Bramus is a frontend web developer from Belgium, working as a Chrome Developer Relations Engineer at Google. From the moment he discovered view-source at the age of 14 (way back in 1997), he fell in love with the web and has been tinkering with it ever since (more …)

Unless noted otherwise, the contents of this post are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License and code samples are licensed under the MIT License

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