Compass In Hand

Guiding The Geek In You

Pseudo-elements as JS flags

The conventional approach to detecting screen resolution with JavaScript using RWD requires you to duplicate break points within your actual code and consequently having to maintain them in two different places. Very annoying. Using a flag embedded in each of your CSS break points is a much simpler approach because they can be programmatically accessed. Multiple flag techniques exist, but in this blog post I will discuss my personal favorite, the pseudo-element flag, invented in 2012 by Jeremy Keith and the readers of his blog adactio.


Pseudo-elements exist in an odd realm. Technically they are not part of the DOM, so they cannot be accessed via traditional selectors nor participate in regular DOM flow. Pseudo-elements, and their cousins, pseudo-classes, are CSS constructions that afford some interesting presentation options. We have all used pseudo-classes before, such as :hover, :focus, and :first-child. Pseudo-elements are used in a very similar way, but not quite as often.

The relationship between real elements and their pseudo-element counterparts:

3D diagram of element and pseudo-element relationship

Element and Pseudo-element relationship

Image Source: Nicolas Gallagher, blog entry Multiple Backgrounds and Borders with CSS 2.1 (original image revised by me to remove some copy not topical to this blog entry, and to trim it down to size).

In fact, pseudo-elements are not new – CSS1 introduced :first-line and :first-letter. CSS2 saw the arrival of :before and :after, and CSS3 has introduced the newest member of the team, ::selection. As a quick side note, CSS3 spec suggests we use double colons (::) when using pseudo-elements, to differentiate them from pseudo-classes, which use the single colon (:). However backward compatibility within browsers ensures the single colon works for both cases, and from a practical standpoint it’s probably best to still use the single colon for now.

The :before and :after pseudo-elements, having been around for many years, are in fact backward compatible all the way to IE8 (not that modern Android or iPhone users care – but it’s still good to know). The caveat however is that the HTML5 document type declaration must be used, or IE8 will poop the bed and forget everything it learned.

Building the Pseudo-Element Flag

While other techniques probably exist, the way I implement pseudo-element flags is to differentiate one at each break point. Therefore, the values contained within each set of CSS rules for each independent flag remain constant. For this reason I like to attach the flag to a relatively safe, static element, the body itself.

body:after{ }

As CSS constructs pseudo-elements enjoy CSS rules not available to conventional DOM objects. One in particular is in fact the secret in our secret sauce:


To ensure the content is not actually displayed we’ll add the final piece:


Accessing the Pseudo-Element via JS

Okay so, if a pseudo-element is not part of the actual DOM, how can we access it – or more to the point, the CSS rules defined for it? The answer:


This sweet method returns the CSS styles applied to an element and the corresponding pseudo-elements, after the browser has finished applying them. Nifty right?

function whatIsMySize() { return window.getComputedStyle(document.body,':after').getPropertyValue('content'); }

Now you have access to the value of the content property of your pseudo-element. Nice!

Last note: Firefox (maybe others, I haven’t tested them all) will return an extra set of quotes if your content value was a string. So, in the example above, Firefox would return:


Thus for conditionals I like to use:

var checkMySize = whatIsMySize();
if ( checkMySize.indexOf("mobile") != -1 ) { // off to the races }

Thanks for reading!

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