Understanding CSS Specificity: A Concise Guide

A Practical Look at Specificity

Today at work, we encountered a common but often overlooked challenge in web development: CSS specificity. We had a global font-size definition that, to our surprise, wasn't being overridden by a more recent class style. Upon inspecting the CSS in the developer tools, it became clear that the issue was rooted in CSS specificity - the new class style had a lower specificity score than the global style.

This real-world problem underscored the importance of understanding CSS specificity, not just in theory but in practical, day-to-day web development. In this article, I aim to demystify CSS specificity, drawing on this experience to show how a deeper understanding of this concept can save time and frustration in your web development journey.

The Basics of CSS Specificity

Specificity in CSS is like a game where different selectors earn different points. The selector with the highest points wins and its styles get applied. Here’s a quick rundown of the points system:

  • Element selectors (e.g., div, h1): 1 point

  • Class selectors (e.g., .container, .header): 10 points

  • ID selectors (e.g., #navbar, #footer): 100 points

  • Inline styles (e.g., style="font-size:12px"): 1000 points


div { /* 1 point */ }
.header { /* 10 points */ }
#navbar { /* 100 points */ }

Calculating Specificity

When selectors are combined, their points add up. The one with the highest total wins.


#navbar .menu-item { /* 100 (ID) + 10 (Class) = 110 points */ }
body #content .article h2 { /* 1 (Element) + 100 (ID) + 10 (Class) + 1 (Element) = 112 points */ }

In the examples above, the second selector has higher specificity, so its styles will override those of the first selector if they target the same element.

Practical Tips and Best Practices

  • Avoid Overusing ID Selectors: IDs are great for JavaScript hooks or unique styling, but they can make your CSS hard to override due to their high specificity.

  • Leverage Classes: Classes strike a good balance between specificity and reusability. They are your best friend for most styling tasks.

  • Use !important Sparingly: This declaration overrides any other declarations, regardless of their specificity. Overuse can lead to maintenance nightmares. Use it only as a last resort.

CSS specificity might seem complex at first, but once you understand the basics, it becomes a powerful tool in your web development arsenal. Experiment with different selectors, and you'll soon get a feel for how specificity shapes your stylesheets.

Further Reading/Resources

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