12.1 Lists

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12.1 Lists

In a sense, almost anything that isn't narrative text can be considered a list. The U.S. Census, the Solar System, my family tree, a restaurant menu, all the friends you've ever hadall can be represented as a list, or perhaps as a list of lists. These many variations make lists fairly important, which is why it's something of a shame that list styling in CSS isn't more sophisticated.

The simplest (and best-supported) way to affect a list's styles is to change its marker type. The marker of a list item is, for example, the "bullet" shown next to each item in an unordered list. In an ordered list, the marker could be a letter, number, or a symbol from some other counting system. You can even replace the markers with images. All of these are accomplished using the different list-style properties.

12.1.1 Types of Lists

In order to change the type of marker used for a list's items, you use the property list-style-type.


CSS2.1 values

disc | circle | square | decimal | decimal-leading-zero | upper-alpha | lower-alpha | upper-roman | lower-roman | none | inherit

CSS2 values

disc | circle | square | decimal | decimal-leading-zero | upper-alpha |lower-alpha | upper-roman | lower-roman | lower-greek | hebrew | armenian | georgian | cjk-ideographic | hiragana | katakana | hiragana-iroha | none | inherit

Initial value


Applies to

elements whose display value is list-item



Computed value

as specified

That's quite a few keywords, I know; many of them were introduced in CSS2 but were then dropped in CSS2.1. Table 12-1 lists the keywords that exist in CSS2.1.

Table 12-1. Keywords of the list-style-type property in CSS2.1




Uses a disc (usually a filled circle) for list-item markers


Uses a circle (usually open) for markers


Uses a square (filled or open) for markers


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . .


01, 02, 03, 04, 05, . . .


A, B, C, D, E, . . .


a, b, c, d, e, . . .


I, II, III, IV, V, . . .


i, ii, iii, iv, v, . . .


Uses no marker

Table 12-2 lists those keywords that were introduced in CSS2 but do not appear in CSS2.1.

Table 12-2. Keywords of the list-style-type property in CSS2




Lowercase classical Greek symbols


Traditional Hebrew numbering


Traditional Armenian numbering


Traditional Georgian numbering


Ideographic numbering


Japanese numbering (A, I, U, E, O...)


Japanese numbering (I, RO, HA, NI, HO...)


Japanese numbering (a, i, u, e, o...)


Japanese numbering (i, ro, ha, ni, ho...)

A user agent should treat any value it does not recognize as decimal.

The list-style-type property, as well all other list-related properties, can be applied only to an element that has a display of list-item, but CSS doesn't distinguish between ordered and unordered list items. Thus, you might be able to set an ordered list to use discs instead of numbers. In fact, the default value of list-style-type is disc, so you might theorize that without explicit declarations to the contrary, all lists (ordered or unordered) will use discs as the marker for each item. This would be logical, but, as it turns out, it's up to the user agent to decide. Even if the user agent doesn't have a predefined rule such as ol {list-style-type: decimal;}, it may prohibit ordered markers from being applied to unordered lists, and vice versa. You can't count on this, so be careful.

For the CSS2 values such as hebrew and georgian, the CSS2 specification doesn't specify exactly how these counting systems work, nor how user agents should deal with them. This uncertainty resulted in a lack of widespread implementation, which is why the values in Table 12-2 do not appear in CSS2.1.

If you want to suppress the display of markers altogether, then none is the value you seek. none causes the user agent to refrain from putting anything where the marker would ordinarily be, although it does not interrupt the counting in ordered lists. Thus, the following markup would have the result shown in Figure 12-1:

ol li {list-style-type: decimal;} {list-style-type: none;}


<li>Item the first

<li class="off">Item the second

<li>Item the third

<li class="off">Item the fourth

<li>Item the fifth

Figure 12-1. Switching off list-item markers

list-style-type is inherited, so if you want to have different styles of markers in nested lists, you'll likely need to define them individually. You may also have to explicitly declare styles for nested lists because the user agent's style sheet may already have defined them. For example, assume that a user agent has the following styles defined:

ul {list-style-type: disc;}

ul ul {list-style-type: circle;}

ul ul ul {list-style-type: square;}

If this is the case (and it's likely that it will be), you will have to declare your own styles to overcome the user agent's styles. Inheritance won't be enough in such a case.

12.1.2 List Item Images

Sometimes, a regular marker just won't do. You might prefer to use an image for each marker, which is possible with the property list-style-image.



<uri> | none | inherit

Initial value


Applies to

elements whose display value is list-item



Computed value:

for <uri> values, the absolute URI; otherwise, none

Here's how it works:

ul li {list-style-image: url(ohio.gif);}

Yes, it's really that simple. One simple url value, and you're putting images in for markers, as you can see in Figure 12-2.

Figure 12-2. Using images as markers

Of course, you should exercise care in the images you use, as the example shown in Figure 12-3 makes painfully clear:

ul li {list-style-image: url(big-ohio.gif);}
Figure 12-3. Using really big images as markers

It's generally a good idea to provide a fallback marker type. Do this just in case your image doesn't load, gets corrupted, or is in a format that some user agents can't display. Therefore, you should always define a backup list-style-type for the list:

ul li {list-style-image: url(ohio.png); list-style-type: square;}

The other thing you can do with list-style-image is set it to the default value of none. This is good practice because list-style-image is inherited so any nested lists will pick up the image as the marker, unless you prevent that from happening:

ul {list-style-image: url(ohio.gif); list-style-type: square;}

ul ul {list-style-image: none;}

Since the nested list inherits the item type square but has been set to use no image for its markers, squares are used for the markers in the nested list, as shown in Figure 12-4.

Figure 12-4. Switching off image markers in sublists

12.1 Lists

Remember that the above scenario might not occur in the real world: a user agent may have already defined a list-style-type for ul ul, so the value of square won't be inherited after all. Your browser may vary.

12.1.3 List-Marker Positions

There is one other thing you can do to influence the appearance of list items under CSS2.1, and that's decide whether the marker appears outside or inside the content of the list item. This is accomplished with list-style-position.



inside | outside | inherit

Initial value


Applies to

elements whose display value is list-item



Computed value:

as specified

If a marker's position is set to outside (the default), it will appear the way list items always have on the Web. Should you desire a slightly different appearance, though, you can pull the marker in toward the content by setting the value to be inside. This causes the marker to be placed "inside" the list item's content. The exact way this happens is undefined, but Figure 12-5 shows one possibility:

li.first {list-style-position: inside;}

li.second {list-style-position: outside;}
Figure 12-5. Placing the markers inside and outside list items

12.1.4 List Styles in Shorthand

For brevity's sake, you can combine the three list-style properties into a convenient single property: list-style.



[ <list-style-type> || <list-style-image> || <list-style-position> ] | inherit

Initial value

refer to individual properties

Applies to

elements whose display value is list-item



Computed value:

see individual properties

For example:

li {list-style: url(ohio.gif) square inside;}

As you can see in Figure 12-6, all three values are applied to the list items.

Figure 12-6. Bringing it all together

The values for list-style can be listed in any order, and any of them can be omitted. As long as one is present, the rest will fill in their default values. For instance, the following two rules will have the same visual effect:

li.norm {list-style: url(img42.gif);}

li.odd {list-style: url(img42.gif) disc outside;} /* the same thing */

They will also override any previous rules in the same way. For example:

li {list-style-type: square;}

li.norm {list-style: url(img42.gif);}

li.odd {list-style: url(img42.gif) disc outside;} /* the same thing */

The result will be the same as that seen in Figure 12-6 because the implied list-style-type value of disc for the rule li.norm will override the previous declared value of square, just as the explicit value of disc overrides it in rule li.odd.

12.1.5 List Layout

Now that we've looked at the basics of styling list markers, let's consider how lists are laid out in various browsers. We'll start with a set of three list items devoid of any markers and not yet placed within a list, as shown in Figure 12-7.

Figure 12-7. Three list items

The border around the list items shows them to be, essentially, like a block-level element. Indeed, the value list-item is defined to generate a block box. Now let's add markers, as illustrated in Figure 12-8.

Figure 12-8. Markers are added

The distance between the marker and the list item's content is not defined by CSS, and CSS2.1 does not provide a way to affect that distance. Interestingly, CSS2 does, which is a subject briefly covered in the sidebar List-Marker Positioning.

With the markers outside the list items' content, they don't affect the layout of other elements, nor do they really even affect the layout of the list items themselves. They just hang a certain distance from the edge of the content, and wherever the content edge goes, the marker will follow. The behavior of the marker works much as though the marker were absolutely positioned in relation to the list-item content, something like position: absolute; left: -1.5em;. When the marker is inside, it acts like an inline element at the beginning of the content.

Just to be different, if for no other good reason, Internet Explorer for Windows extends the content area of the list items to enclose the bullets, as illustrated in Figure 12-9. This does not change the overall situation with list styling, although it can make a difference in situations where authors apply borders to list items.

Figure 12-9. List borders and bullets in IE/Win

So far, you have yet to add an actual list container; in other words, there is neither a ul nor an ol element represented in the figures. You can add one to the mix, as shown in Figure 12-10 (it's represented by a dashed border).

Figure 12-10. Adding a list element

Like the list items, the list element is a block box, one that encompasses its descendant elements. As you can see, however, the markers are not only placed outside the list item contents, but also outside the content area of the list element. The usual "indentation" you expect from lists has not yet been specified.

Most browsers, as of this writing, accomplish the indentation of list items by setting either padding or margins for the containing list element. For example, the user agent might apply a rule such as this one:

ul, ol {margin-left: 40px;}

This is the rule employed by Internet Explorer and Opera (see Figure 12-10). Most Gecko-based browsers, on the other hand, use a rule like this:

ul, ol {padding-left: 40px;}

Neither is incorrect, but the discrepancy can lead to problems if you want to eliminate the indentation of the list items. Figure 12-11 shows the difference between the two approaches.

Figure 12-11. Margins and padding as indentation devices

12.1 Lists

The distance of 40px is a relic of early web browsers, which indented lists by a pixel amount. A better value would be something like 2.5em, since this would scale the indentation along with changes in the text size.

For authors who want to change the indentation distance of lists, I strongly recommend that you specify both padding and margins. This will lead to cross-browser compatibility. For example, if you want to use padding to indent a list, use this rule:

ul {margin-left: 0; padding-left: 1em;}

If you prefer margins, write something like this instead:

ul {margin-left: 1em; padding-left: 0;}

In either case, remember that the markers will be placed relative to the contents of the list items, and may therefore "hang" outside the main text of a document, or even beyond the edge of the browser window.

List-Marker Positioning

A feature many authors request is the ability to control the space between a marker and the content of a list item. CSS2 defined ways to do this, including a property called marker-offset and a display value of marker. Implementation experience since showed this to be a clumsy approach, and these features were removed in CSS2.1

As of this writing, the current working draft of the CSS3 Lists module defines a new and more compact way to affect marker placement, which is the ::marker pseudo-element. Assuming that the module does not change before becoming a full Recommendation, you may someday be able to write rules such as li::marker {margin-right: 0.125em;} in order to get markers snug up against the content of list items without actually bringing them inside.

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