AtoZ CSS Screencast: The Hover Pseudo Class

Guy Routledge
Guy Routledge

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This screencast is a part of our AtoZ CSS Series. You can find other entries to the series here.


Hover is a pseudo class and can be used to style state.

The hover state is active when a user’s mouse enters the bounding box of an element and is inactive when the user’s mouse leaves it.

In this episode, we’ll look at the :hover pseudo-class on text links and cover some of the other link pseudo classes as well. We’ll also look at some of the downsides of hover and some workarounds for non-mouse users. Finally we’ll create a CSS dropdown menu triggered by hover and enhanced with jQuery for touch devices.

Probably the most common use of :hover is to provide visual feedback to users when mousing over links and buttons.

The hover state of a link can be styled in CSS as follows:

a:hover {color: red;}

The colon next to the a signifies a pseudo class. We’ll look at a number of them in this video and throughout the rest of the series – and you can check out the :enabled and :disabled pseudo classes in “Episode 5: ID Selector.

In this example, just the color is being styled but any properties can be changed, overwritten, or canceled out. You could increase the font-size and rotate the link by 180 degrees if you wanted to – but don’t do that.

There are other pseudo classes that are useful for styling different link states too.

There’s a:visited for styling links that the user has in their browser history. There’s also a:active for styling a link that is currently being clicked on. Finally, there’s a:focus for a link that currently has keyboard focus – ie. the user has used the tab key to jump through the clickable items on a page like links and form inputs.

I like to group this set of four link states together as part of a reset stylesheet that will set sensible defaults for an entire project.

a {color: blue;}
a:hover {color: lightblue;}
a:visited {color: darkblue;}
a:focus {outline: 1px dotted grey;}
a:active {color: lightblue;}

The Downside

Hover states can be applied to any element – not just links – which makes them very versatile. But on touch devices, there’s no mouse to initiate the hover.

Hover styles sometimes get applied if a user taps very lightly on a link or button but this is not reliable and not consistent across platforms and devices. It can often be very confusing, and our job is to improve user experience, not make it worse!

In the case of touch devices, avoid key information being hidden behind hover interactions. If this can’t be done, it is possible to swap out hovers for clicks using JavaScript.

Some users aren’t able to use a mouse and we can improve the experience for them by always applying :focus and :active styles whenever we use :hover. We can comma separate these in our CSS as follows:

a:active {
  /* styles */

If you use a CSS pre-processor like Sass, you could create a mixin that would output these three comma separated pseudos for you without having to write them out all the time.

@mixin hover-focus-active() {
  &:active { @content }
/* usage */
a {
  @include hover-focus-active {
    /* styles */

Now your state based styles will show during keyboard interactions on elements that can be focused or made active.

CSS Dropdown Menu

We’ve seen a basic use of :hover to give some visual feedback when interacting with links and buttons. Another common design pattern on the web is dropdown menus in a site’s main navigation.

We can use the hover interaction to show and hide a sub-menu by using more complex CSS selectors. To make this interaction behave nicely on touch devices, a small amount of JavaScript is required to convert hover events into click events – but we’ll take a look at that later.

The trick is to toggle the display property of the sub menus when hovering over the top-level menu items. As :hover is a CSS selector, it can be combined with other selectors in a chain to create more complex behaviour. For more info on the display property, check out “Episode 4: Display.

In this example, I have a horizontal unordered list of links, each with a sub-menu positioned beneath them. The sub menus are another unordered list but with the list items stacked on top of each other.

This CSS, sets up this initial layout. The colour and font properties have been moved into my page-styles.css file, to keep the working area clean.

.menu > li {
  position: relative;
  display: inline-block;
.menu .sub-menu {
  position: absolute;
  top: 100%;
  left: 0;

The sub-menus can be hidden with display:none and then set to display:block when a menu item is being hovered over.

.menu li:hover .sub-menu {
  display: block;

This will show all sub-menus but we can tweak this selector to limit the showing and hide to individual sub-menus by using the > child selector. For more info on this and other combinator selectors, check out the previous episode on the general sibling selector.

.menu li:hover > .sub-menu { 
  display: block; 

If you prefer less of a sudden snapping on or off of the sub menus, you could combine opacity with transition for more of a fade in, fade out effect. I’ll leave that as an exercise for you to play around with – make a Codepen and shoot me a tweet; I’d love to check out what you come up with.

To make this drop down menu play nice on touch devices, we can add in a bit of JavaScript. This jQuery snippet will activate the dropdown menus on click instead of hover; clicking a second time will allow any link in the top-level menu to be navigated to unless it’s an empty link.

if ('ontouchstart' in document.documentElement) {
  $('.menu > li').has('.sub-menu').on('click', 'a', function(e) {
    var $menuItem = $(this);
    var target = $menuItem.attr('href');

    if (!target || target === '#') {
      return false;
    if ($'.js-active')) {
      return true;


A working example of this menu including the jQuery for touch devices can be found on Codepen.

Watch out for our Quick Tip article coming soon!