A Simple CSS Drop-Cap

By James Edwards

You can’t have failed to notice the drop-cap effect we’re using in the new blogs design, as well as the first-line uppercasing that most browsers display (except Safari, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment).

There are quite a few hacky methods for implementing this effect, but the cleanest and most maintainable is pure CSS, using the :first-letter and :first-line pseudo-classes.

This approach means no additional markup, no images, and no need to know about the content — whatever the first letter and first line are, they’ll have the effect applied.

Here’s the CSS that makes it happen:

#post-content > p:first-child:first-line, 
#post-content > .ad:first-child + p:first-line

#post-content > p:first-child:first-letter, 
#post-content > .ad:first-child + p:first-letter
    margin:0.13em 0.2em 0 0;

You’ll notice how there are two different selectors attempting to apply the effect, to the first paragraph inside the content area. It needed to be flexible enough to allow for the presence, or lack, of an ad immediately before the paragraph, marked-up as <div class="ad">. So ideally I would have used :first-of-type, which selects the first element of a specified type within its parent context:

#post-content > p:first-of-type:first-line

#post-content > p:first-of-type:first-letter

But that’s not as widely supported; the selectors we’re using mean we get support for IE8 that we otherwise wouldn’t.

For the first-line uppercasing we unfortunately don’t get support for Safari. It’s not because of the selectors — it supports all the examples shown here, and does apply other properties within those rules — it just doesn’t apply the text-transform. This is something I’ve noticed in a number of different situations, where Safari doesn’t apply the transform, for no readily-apparent reason. I’ve seen it fail to apply to an <input> element where it worked for a corresponding <button>, and here we see it fail to apply to the paragraph’s first line even though it would work if it were applied to the whole paragraph! Go figure.

For the drop-cap itself, you can see that it’s pretty simple to implement. The notable thing in that rule is the combination of margin-top and line-height that brings the letter into position. If we omit those two properties, we get this:

The drop-cap before line-height is applied.

What you’re seeing there, from left to right, is Firefox, Opera and Safari. And in fact it’s Firefox that’s rendering that incorrectly, while Opera and Safari get it right — Firefox is still applying the parent paragraph’s line-height to the first letter, ignoring its much-larger font size, while the other browsers are correctly applying a line-height that corresponds with the letter’s font-size.

So we can take advantage of the difference to even-out the result between browsers — reducing the line-height progressively, which makes no difference to Firefox, until we get a similar result in Opera and Safari (and IE8):

The drop-cap after line-height is applied.

Then it’s simply a case of adding margin-top until the vertical position looks right.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this rendering behavior in Firefox. And since we have no CSS hacks that can apply only to Firefox, differences like this are really the only way we can apply browser tweaks. And as browser tweaks go, this one is entirely future-proof — if Firefox ever fixes its implementation and applies the correct line-height, it will come-out like the others in the first place.

It’s ironic really, that we should end up fixing every browser except Firefox, when Firefox is the only browser that gets it wrong! But that’s just how our industry works — Firefox, like your missus, is “always right”.

Thumbnail credit: Thoth

  • Nicolas Gallagher

    I wrote up some test cases for :first-letter and :first-line bugs including the Safari and Firefox bugs you mentioned. In some cases Safari will apply the text-transform value to the first-letter if it is declared for the first-line. Quite an unusual bug. Bugs:

  • jackew

    I appreciate being able to have this Drop-Cap abiity in CSS, but I’m from the old school of typography and, even in the days of hot metal typesetting, we would kern these characters so the paragraph wrapped, conforming to the cap. So far, I have not been able to figure a way to accomplish such. Have you?



  • @Nicholas: thanks for that. I don’t see a quick fix to this particular situation, but does suggest that simply re-arranging the rules and properties might do something. I’ll have a play.

    @jackew: Er, I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean – can you explain kern these characters so the paragraph wrapped, conforming to the cap ..?

  • Oh that is cool…. I must admit that at first I though you were just going to wrap the first character in a container and style it but then before I read the article I looked at the markup and saw no evidence of that and had to have a peek.

    I’ll definitely tinker with this and see if it might come in handy in one of my Drupal sites.


  • jackew

    Take a look at the examples above: we would have moved the second line to the left so that it tucked under the cap Y; and the last example would have had the line moved leftward to be over the base leg of the capital L, then the next line stay as is before continuing the full width paragraph. This avoids the large white space (or gap) and makes the initial a part of the paragraph, rather than sitting all by its lonesome.

  • The illustrations in this post are unfinished examples – in practice, the third line of the first paragraph does slot underneath the capital letter, which is the whole point of the line-height reduction. Look on this page here – the letter Y is two lines high, and then the third line flows perfectly underneath it, so there’s no gap; and the space to the right of the capital is deliberate, because it looks better than having it all bunched up.

    So you get this:

    Or are you seeing something different?

    As far as I’m concerned this implementation is perfect – exactly what I was trying to achieve. Maybe you could make a diagram that illustrates what you mean.

  • @brothercake What jackew means is having the left edge of the paragraph flow around the shape of the drop cap, rather than being left-aligned to a straight edge. It’s the kind of effect that would be more noticeable with larger drop caps—so that, for example, a paragraph to the left of an O would have a circular shape as the left edge follows the shape of the letter.

    It’s definitely not something that is practical on the web with the technologies that we have right now, but I think what James has implemented for SitePoint is a pretty damn good compromise!

    Thanks for chiming in jackew. We can all dream that the attention to detail you’re referring to is one day achievable!

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