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A large part of XHTML coding involves application of styling characteristics to page elements. Styling includes positioning of elements on the page along with their visual appearance as font faces, sizes, colors, and other display characteristics. There are two basic ways to control the layout and appearance of page elements -- with tag attributes and through style sheets. These methods are described briefly here and are elaborated and illustrated throughout the tutorial.


Formatting styles can be applied through attributes coded within XHTML tags. Particular tags have particular attributes that are specific to them and which control the appearance of whatever page content they contain. As a quick example, a horizontal rule is displayed across the page wherever the <hr/> tag is coded. This tag produces the following line often used to separate sections of content on the page.

Figure 1. Default horizontal rule.

The above line is the default display of the tag. It can, though, take on a different appearance by coding attributes inside the tag. The size attribute controls the depth of the line; the width attribute gives its length; the color attribute sets its color, and the align attribute specifies its horizontal position on the line (to the left of the page, to the right of the page, or centered on the page).

Tag attributes are coded in the general format attribute="value", naming the attribute and supplying a quoted value for its setting. Below, for example, is an <hr/> tag coded with four attributes to control its displayed appearance as shown in Figure 2.

<hr size="10" width="50%" color="red" align="center"/>

Figure 2. Red horizontal rule 50% of the width of the Web page.

The line is 10 pixels in height (size="10"), 50% of the width of the browser window (width="50%"), red in color (color="red"), and centered horizontally on the page (align="center"). Thus, attribute values give styling characteristics to display the rule differently from its normal default style. As you proceed through this tutorial, particular attributes associated with particular tags are presented as styling options for those tags.

Under XHTML standards, however, many of the styling attributes of tags have been deprecated. This means that the attributes are still recognized in modern browsers but the recommendation is to abandon their use in favor of other styling methods. The movement is towards use of style sheets, rather than attributes, to apply styling to XHTML elements.

Cascading Style Sheets

The preferred way to apply styling to page elements is with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). A style sheet is a set of style properties and accompanying style values that describe the appearance of XHTML elements to which they are applied. There are three methods of creating style sheets. An in-line style sheet appears inside the tag to which its style declarations apply; an embedded style sheet is a separate style section of a Web page which applies its styles to all designated tags on a page; a linked style sheet is an external document containing style settings that apply to all pages that link to it.

In-line Style Sheets. An in-line style sheet is coded inside a tag to apply styling to that particular tag. It is coded in the general format shown in Figure 3.

<tag style="property:value [; property:value] ...">

Figure 3. General format for an in-line style sheet.

One or more property:value pairs give style settings within a style attribute coded in the tag. Multiple style properties settings are separated from each other with semicolons; spaces can be included between the settings to help with readability.

The properties and values that can be coded for a tag depend to a large extent on the particular tag being styled. Style settings for a horizontal rule, for instance, can include height, width, color, and text-align properties, identical in effect to the deprecated size, width, color, and align attributes they replace. These properties are coded as an in-line style sheet in the following manner.

<hr style="height:10px; width:50%; color:red; text-align:center"/>

A style attribute appears inside the <hr/> tag and specifies a set of properties and values to apply to the tag when it is displayed in the browser. When this tag is displayed it takes on these style properties as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Horizontal rule created with an in-line style sheet.

When applied as in-line style sheets the properties and values pertain only to the tag in which they are coded. This means, for instance, that if there are several <hr/> tags on a page, each would need to include the same in-line style sheet to share the same style. This may not present a problem with only a few tags; with many tags, though, it can be tedious and error-prone to code the same style sheet in all of the individual tags. A way is needed, then, for declaring style settings that can be shared by multiple tags.

Embedded Style Sheets. To avoid duplicate coding of in-line style sheets an embedded style sheet can be used. An embedded style sheet is defined within a <style> tag, normally coded in the <head> section of the page. Within this <style> section is a list of tag names, called selectors, to which style declarations (properties and values) are assigned. Once these declarations are made, they are automatically applied to the identified tags wherever they are located on the page. The general format for the <style> section of a document is shown in Figure 5.

  selector {property:value [; property:value] ...}

Figure 5. General format for embedded style sheet.

A selector is a tag name (without the enclosing "<" and ">" symbols). Style properties and values for the tag are enclosed within a list of style declarations, separated by semicolons, all enclosed within a pair of braces "{ }". For example, the following code specifies style declarations for the <hr/> tag, supplying the same style settings as in the previous in-line style sheet.

  <title>Embedded Style Sheet Example</title>

    hr { height:10px; width:50%; color:red; text-align:center }


The hr selector is associated with four property:value declarations to style a horizontal rule. Once these styles are defined within an embedded style sheet, they are applied automatically wherever the browser encounters an <hr/> tag within the document. It is not necessary to code separate in-line style sheets within each and every <hr/> tag. The tag itself carries the styling described in the embedded style sheet.

Although shown above with a single entry for the <hr/> tag, an embedded style sheet can contain any number of entries depending on how many different tags are to be styled. The example is also coded on a single line. Many Web page authors prefer to code property:value settings on separate lines for ease of reading.


  hr {height:10px;


The manner of spacing style sheet entries does not affect the styling. Like XHTML code, style sheet code is free format; it can be arranged in any fashion as long as the punctuation is correct.

Whether to employ an embedded style sheet or in-line style sheets is a matter of coding efficiencies and personal choice. Normally, if a style is applied to multiple occurences of a tag, it involves less coding and fewer errors to code an embedded style sheet, declaring the style one time for sharing by all the tags. One the other hand, if a style is applied one time to a single tag, then there is convenience in coding an in-line style sheet for that particular tag. Later, strategies are presented for dealing with various styling situations.

Linked Style Sheets. If your Web site contains multiple pages, and most do, then a third style sheet alternative is probably the best solution. It permits you to conveniently apply the same styles to all pages without having to duplicate in-line or embedded style sheets on each page.

A linked style sheet is a separate document containing property:value settings in the same format as an embedded style sheet. The only difference is that the linked document does not include <style> tags surrounding the entries. For example, a linked style sheet document containing specifications for the <hr/> tag would include the entries shown in Figure 6.

hr {height:10px;

Figure 6. Linked style sheet document.

This searate document is created with a text editor and saved as a standard text file, usually with the file extension .css to identify it as a style sheet document. It is common practice to save the document under the name "stylesheet.css" in the same directory as the Web pages to which it applies.

A linked style sheet document contains style settings that are applicable to all pages of the Web site. Therefore, all pages that use the style sheet must "link" to it to make the styles accessible to those pages. This linkage occurs with a <link> tag coded in the <head> section of the page. The general format for the <link> tag is shown in Figure 7.

<link .../>

Figure 7. General format for <link> tag.

The href (hypertext reference) attribute gives the location of the linked style sheet. If the style sheet appears in the same directory as the Web page to which it applies, then this entry is simply the name of the style sheet document. The type attribute identifies the type of document to which the link is made (always "text/css"). The rel attribute specifies the relationship of the external document to the current page (always "stylesheet").

If you have a style sheet document named "stylesheet.css" that is located in the same folder as your Web page, you link the Web page to this document using the following XHTML code.

  <title>Linked Style Sheet Example</title>
  <link href="stylesheet.css" type="text/css" rel="stylesheet"/>

Now, the Web page has available to it all of the style settings included in the stylesheet.css document. This linked style sheet can serve to replace embedded or in-line style sheets that otherwise would appear on individual Web pages. As in the case with embedded style sheets, any tags identified in a linked style sheet carry with them the declared styles.

Applying Style Sheets

It would not be uncommon to employ all three types of style sheets for a single Web page. A linked style sheet would contain styles that are common to all Web pages; an embedded style sheet would contains styles that are pertinent to the particular page; in-line style sheets would apply to individual tags for which common styling is not needed. The browser handles these multiple style sheets in the following fashion.

  • First, any linked style sheets are applied to the identified tag selectors on the page.
  • Second, any embedded style sheets are applied. If the same tag selectors appear in both the linked and embedded style sheets, then embedded styles override or augment linked styles.
  • Third, any in-line style sheets are applied. If these settings pertain to the same tags that appear in either linked or embedded style sheets, then in-line styles override or augment both linked and embedded styles.

The general principle in force is that any lower-level style setting takes precedence over an equivalent higher-level style setting. In-line style sheets take precedence over embedded style sheets which take precedence over linked style sheets.

Assume, for example, that a linked style sheet contains the following style declarations for horizontal rules.

hr {height:1px;

All pages that link to this style sheet display horizontal rules in this style. Now assume that one particular page needs differently styled rules, say, ones that are blue rather than red. So, an embedded style sheet is coded on this page in order to override the color declaration in the linked style sheet:

  hr {color:blue}

All horizontal rules on this page are blue; however, they retain the height, width, and text-align properties from the linked style sheet. Tags on this page inherit the properties of the linked style sheet unless modified by an embedded style sheet.

Assume lastly that one particular horizontal rule on this page needs to be green and extend to the width of the page. So, an in-line style sheet is added to this particular rule.

<hr style="color:green; width:100%"/>

Green styling overrides the blue color that is inherited from the embedded style sheet; a width of 100% overrides the 50% width inherited from the linked style sheet. This particular rule, however, retains its 1 pixel height and centered alignment inherited from the linked style sheet.

Style inheritence is what makes style sheets "cascading." Linked styles are inherited by, or cascade across, all Web pages that link to them; embedded styles are inherited by, or cascade across, an entire Web page containing a <style> section; in-line styles are inherited by, or cascade across, individual tags containing in-line style sheets.

Throughout these tutorials, style properties and values are introduced and illustrated as in-line style sheets, with discussion on how they can be elevated to embedded on linked style sheets for wider application. By the end, you should be at ease with style sheets and with the many ways they offer to design Web pages to meet your most exacting design requirements.

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