CSS Selectors

In the example from the previous section, we saw:

p {
  color: red;
  background-color: green;

Here the p is a CSS Selector, which tells us what elements on the page the CSS rules should be applied to.

Simple Selectors

The most basic CSS selectors come in several flavors, which we’ll take a look at next. Simple selectors are a string composed of alphanumeric characters, dashes (-), and underscores (_). Certain selectors also use additional special characters.

Type Selector

Type selectors apply to a specific type of HTML element. The p in our example is a type selector matching the paragraph element.

A type selector is simply the name of the HTML element it applies to - the tag name from our discussion of HTML element structure.

Class Selector

A class selector is a proceeded by a period (.), and applies to any HTML element that has a matching class attribute. For example, the CSS rule:

.danger { 
  color: red;

would apply to both the paragraph and button elements:

<p class="danger">You are in danger</p>
<button class="danger">Don't click me!</button>

as both have the class danger. A HTML element can have multiple classes applied, just separate each class name with a space:

<p class="danger big-text">I have two classes!</p>

ID Selector

An ID selector is proceeded by a hash (#) and applies to the HTML element that has a matching id attribute. Hence:

<p id="lead">This paragraph has an id of "lead"</p>

would be matched by:

#lead {
  font-size: 16pt;

It is important to note that the id attribute should be unique within the page. If you give the same id to multiple elements, the results will be unpredictable (and doing so is invalid HTML).

Universal Selector

The asterisk (*) is the universal selector, and applies to all elements. It is often used as part of a reset - CSS rules appearing at the beginning of a CSS document to remove browser-specific styles before applying a site’s specific ones. For example:

* {
  margin: 0;
  padding: 0;

sets all element margins and paddings to 0 instead of a browser default. Later rules can then apply specific margins and padding.

Attribute Selector

The attribute selector is wrapped in square brackets ([]) and selects HTML elements with matching attribute values, i.e.:

[readonly] {
  color: gray;

will make any element with a readonly attribute have gray text. The value can also be specified exactly, i.e.


or partially. See MDN’s documentation for details.

Compound Selectors

Simple selectors can be used in conjunction for greater specificity. For example, a.external-link selects all <a> elements with a class of external-link, and input[type=checkbox] selects all <input> elements with an attribute type set to checkbox.


Pseudo-class selectors are proceeded with a single colon (:), and refer to the state of the element they modify. Pseudo-classes must therefore be appended to a selector.

The most commonly used pseudo-class is :hover, which is applied to an element that the mouse is currently over. Moving the mouse off the element will make this selector no longer apply. For example, a:hover applies only to <a> elements with the mouse directly over them.

Another extremely useful pseudo-class is :nth-child(), which applies to the nth child (specify as an argument), i.e. ul:nth-child(2) will apply to the second child of any unordered list. Additionally, tr:nth-child(odd) will apply to the odd-numbered rows of a table.

Additional pseudo-classes can be found in the MDN documentation


Combinators can be used to combine both simple and compound selectors using an operator.

Adjacent Sibling Combinator

The plus symbol (+) can be used to select an adjacent sibling HTML element. To be siblings, the first element must be followed by the second, and both must be children of a shared parent. I.e.:

h1 + p {
  font-weight: bold;

will bold all paragraphs that directly follow a first-level header.

General Sibling Combinator

The tilde symbol (~) also selects a sibling, but they do not need to be adjacent, just children of the same parent. The first element must still appear before the second (just not immediately after).

Child Combinator

The greater than symbol (>) selects elements that are direct children of the first element. For example:

p > a {
  font-weight: bold;

Will bold all anchor elements that are direct children of a paragraph element.

Descendant Combinator

A space ( ) selects elements that are descendants of the first element.

Multiple Selectors

Finally, we can apply the same rules to a collection of selectors by separating the selectors with commas, i.e.:

a, p, span {
  font-family: "Comic Sans", sans-serif;

Applies Comic Sans as the font for all <a>, <p>, and <span> elements.


An interesting newer development in CSS is the development of psuedo-elements, selectors that go beyond the elements included in the HTML of the page. They are proceeded by two colons (::). For example, the ::first-letter selector allows you to change the first letter of a HTML element. Thus:

p:first-child::first-letter {
  font-size: 20px;
  font-weight: bold;
  float: left;

creates drop caps for all initial paragraphs.

A second use of pseudo-elements is to create new elements around existing ones with ::before or ::after. For example:

a.external-link::after {
 content: url(external-link-icon.png); 

Would add the external-link-icon.png image after any <a> elements with the external-link class.

More information can be found in the MDN Documentation.