Container Selection Syntax Implications

Table of Contents

There are three big syntax issues currently under discussion, all related to how containers are selected for a given query. I want to summarize these all in one place, with a clear proposal (or set of options) to guide the discussion.

Intro to container selection

@container (inline-size > 40em) {
.card {
padding: 1em;

In order to resolve a container query like the one above, we have to do three things:

  1. Selector Matching: Once we match each .card element in the DOM, we have to do the next steps individually for each one. Different .card elements may have different containers, making the query true or false depending which container is queried.
  2. Container Selection: The current WD spec looks for the nearest ancestor container of each card element, where a container is defined by having a set container-type. However we resolved recently to give every element a default container-type: style, which breaks that logic. These issues include revisiting that resolution, but also push forward on the implications of it.
  3. Resolving Queries: Once we know what container to query for a given .card element, we can resolve the queries against the container, and conditionally apply our styles.

Currently the @container syntax is broken into two parts:

  1. a preamble that handles any explicit container selection
  2. followed by a list of queries
@container <preamble> <query-list># {
/* styles */

The three issues being discussed

There are three issue threads involved in this conversation:

  1. #6644 [css-contain-3] Determine container type automatically from the query
  2. #6393 [css-contain-3] Provide a syntax to query a specific container-type
  3. #6876 [css-contain-3] Multiple container-queries with multiple containers

These issues all focus around the logic & syntax for container selection – and how that impacts the preamble syntax. However, the implications of each issue are highly intertwined, so I’d like to discuss them all as a group. From there we can break out individual resolutions.

(Some of these issues are framed around the idea of style queries. There’s been a suggestion that we should defer style queries to level 4, and I’m in favor of that move if it helps clarify implementation steps. But that won’t allow us to defer these questions, which are important to the overall syntax of container queries.)

Current behavior is problematic

Let’s start with the following html. To avoid the question (for now) about style containers being automatic, I’ve listed the style type explicitly on every element.

<html style='container-type: size style;'>
<main style='container-type: inline-size style;'>
<section style='container-type: style;'>
<div class='card'>...</div>

Given that markup, we can consider various container queries that apply to the card element:

/* requires either a `size` or `inline-size` container-type */
@container (inline-size > 40em) {
.card { margin: 2em; }

/* requires a `size` container-type */
@container (orientation: portrait) {
.card { margin: 2em; }

/* requires a style container-type */
@container style(font-style: normal) {
.card { font-style: italic; }

/* requires a style container and an inline-size container */
/* (do they have to be the same container???) */
@container style(font-style: normal) and (inline-size > 40em) {
.card { padding-inline: 2em; }

In the current spec, containers are selected by:

That means all of the size conditions above would return false no matter the actual size available, since the default container (the direct parent) is only able to resolve style queries. So we have some choices to make.

#6644 Determine container type automatically from the query?

The proposal here is to allow the queries themselves to impact the container selection process, so that we use the nearest appropriate ancestor container based on what type of container is needed to appropriately answer the conditions raised:

This is the behavior @fantasai are proposing. We think this approach will:

This is even more urgent, since we resolved previously (in #6393) to make container-type: style the default value on all elements – which would mean that the nearest ancestor container of an element is always the direct parent. This proposal resolves that potential issue, while also making it impossible for the author to accidentally get themselves in the same situation.

But this decision has implications for the other two issues.

#6393 Provide a syntax to query a specific container-type

Una has pointed out that making every element a style container is only useful when querying inherited styles. For example, if you query the background-color of a container, it may not be set on the parent, but on an arbitrary ancestor.

While it might be reasonable to search the ancestor tree for appropriate container-type, it’s not reasonable to search for an appropriate property declaration.

She’s proposed that we reverse our decision on #6393 (making every element a style container), and also reject the automatic selection above. In fact, if we reject automatic container selection, I think we have to reverse the style container choice.

That would take us back to:

Una can speak to that more, if she wants.

While I agree that the parent element will be the wrong choice for some non-inherited styles, I expect inherited styles to be a very common use-case:

em { font-style: italic; }
@container style(font-style: italic) {
em { font-style: normal; }

(This is the same functionality proposed elsewhere as a toggle() function – recently deferred to css-values-5.)

Additionally, the argument seems circular to me. If selecting the appropriate type is only useful for avoiding false negatives – but not specific enough to ensure we’re always getting the most useful container – then container-type isn’t what authors should use for explicit container selection. With or without the default style container-type, it would be fragile to assume that the nearest style container will always have a background. Authors should be encouraged to use a container-name whenever that level of specificity is needed, (e.g. container-name: has-bg).

#6876 Multiple container-queries with multiple containers

This last issue is still an open question, no matter how we resolve the other two issues – but it becomes especially relevant to clarify if we follow the path @fantasai and I are proposing.

If we look at two of the single-condition queries above, each one will now seek out the appropriate container to resolve the condition:

/* use the  `main` container: nearest inline-size type */
@container (inline-size > 40em) {
.card { margin: 2em; }

/* use the `section` container: nearest style type */
@container style(font-style: normal) {
.card { font-style: italic; }

But what happens if we combine the two conditions in a single query? What container/s are selected?

@container style(font-style: normal) and (inline-size > 40em) {
.card { padding-inline: 2em; }

We have a choice:

  1. Use the nearest single container that is able to resolve all conditions
  2. Allow each condition to select a different container.

The first option (which we prefer) means the way you ask the question might change the answer you get. But it helps keep things simple: a single container query rule only needs a single container-selection preamble, and can always be resolved against a single container.

It’s still possible to query multiple containers by nesting the queries:

@container style(font-style: normal) {
@container (inline-size > 40em) {
.card { padding-inline: 2em; }

This gives us the AND of two queries referencing two containers. The OR version requires duplicated styles, which is less ideal, but still possible. Down the road, we could still consider adding syntax sugar for this – using the @when rule, or something similar that can wrap our existing single-container syntax in distinct functions. That can be deferred for now without holding up progress on the core functionality.

The second option means a single query can (and will often) be resolved against multiple containers. That also means we would want a unique preamble for each condition. There have been a few syntax proposals thrown around, but so far nothing that strikes me as clear and legible.

I’m not convinced it’s a appropriate syntax sugar, if it makes the simple use-case more complicated.

Proposed resolutions

These are my proposed resolutions:

  1. #6644 When selecting a container, determine a container-type automatically based on the combined condition-types required in the query.
  2. #6393 Remove the container-type syntax from the preamble of the @container rule.
  3. #6876 A single @container rule resolves all conditions against the same container by default. Defer the question of additional syntax sugar to level 4.

And a possible follow-up:

  1. #7020 Defer style containers and conditions to level 4