A year and a half ago, I was asked to help upstream a Chromium patch allowing authors to recolor spelling and grammar errors in CSS. At the time, I didn’t realise that this was part of a far more ambitious effort to reimagine spelling errors, grammar errors, text selections, and more as a coherent system that didn’t yet exist as such in any browser. That system is known as the highlight pseudos, and this post will focus on the design of said system and its consequences for authors.
This is the third part of a series (part one, part two) about Igalia’s work towards making the CSS highlight pseudos a reality.
- What are they?
- Can I use them?
- How do I use them?
- How do they work?
What are they?
CSS has four highlight pseudos and an open set of author-defined custom highlight pseudos. They have their roots in ::selection, which was a rudimentary and non-standard, but widely supported, way of styling text and images selected by the user.
The built-in highlights are ::selection for user-selected content, ::target-text for linking to text fragments, ::spelling-error for misspelled words, and ::grammar-error for text with grammar errors, while the custom highlights are known as ::highlight(x) where x is the author-defined highlight name.
Can I use them?
::selection has long been supported by all of the major browsers, and ::target-text shipped in Chromium 89. But for most of that time, no browser had yet implemented the more robust highlight pseudo system in the CSS pseudo spec.
::highlight() and the custom highlight API shipped in Chromium 105, thanks to the work by members1 of the Microsoft Edge team. They are also available in Safari 14.1 (including iOS 14.5) as an experimental feature (Highlight API). You can enable that feature in the Develop menu, or for iOS, under Settings > Safari > Advanced.
Chromium 105 also implements the vast majority of the new highlight pseudo system. This includes highlight overlay painting, which was enabled for all highlight pseudos, and highlight inheritance, which was enabled for ::highlight() only.
Chromium 108 includes ::spelling-error and ::grammar-error as an experimental feature, together with the new ‘text-decoration-line’ values ‘spelling-error’ and ‘grammar-error’. You can enable these features at
Click the table below to see if your browser supports these features.
act: sel: cha:
|• CSSOM API||
|Highlight overlay painting||
|Highlight inheritance (::selection)||
|Highlight inheritance (::highlight)||
How do I use them?
While you can write rules for highlight pseudos that target all elements, as was commonly done for pre-standard ::selection, selecting specific elements can be more powerful, allowing descendants to cleanly override highlight styles.
Previously the same code would yield…
…unless you also selected the descendants of :root and aside:
Note that a bare ::selection rule still means *::selection, and like any universal rule, it can interfere with inheritance when mixed with non-universal highlight rules.
::selection is primarily controlled by user input, though pages can both read and write the active ranges via the Selection API with getSelection().
::target-text is activated by navigating to a URL ending in a fragment directive, which has its own syntax embedded in the #fragment. For example:
#foo:~:text=bartargets #foo and highlights the first occurrence of “bar”
#:~:text=the,doghighlights the first range of text from “the” to “dog”
::spelling-error and ::grammar-error are controlled by the user’s spell checker, which is only used where the user can input text, such as with
subject to the
spellcheck attribute (which also affects grammar checking).
For privacy reasons, pages can’t read the active ranges of these highlights, despite being visible to the user.
::highlight() is controlled via the Highlight API with CSS.highlights. CSS.highlights is a maplike object, which means the interface is the same as a Map of strings (highlight names) to Highlight objects. Highlight objects, in turn, are setlike objects, which you can use like a Set of Range or StaticRange objects.
You can use getComputedStyle() to query resolved highlight styles under a particular element. Regardless of which parts (if any) are highlighted, the styles returned are as if the given highlight is active and all other highlights are inactive.
How do they work?
Highlight pseudos are defined as pseudo-elements, but they actually have very little in common with other pseudo-elements like ::before and ::first-line.
Unlike other pseudos, they generate highlight overlays, not boxes, and these overlays are like layers over the original content. Where text is highlighted, a highlight overlay can add backgrounds and text shadows, while the text proper and any other decorations are “lifted” to the very top.
You can think of highlight pseudos as innermost pseudo-elements that always exist at the bottom of any tree of elements and other pseudos, but unlike other pseudos, they don’t inherit their styles from that element tree.
Instead each highlight pseudo forms its own inheritance tree, parallel to the element tree. This means body::selection inherits from html::selection, not from ‘body’ itself.
At this point, you can probably see that the highlight pseudos are quite different from the rest of CSS, but there are also several special cases and rules needed to make them a coherent system.
For the typical appearance of spelling and grammar errors, highlight pseudos need to be able to add their own decorations, and they need to be able to leave the underlying foreground color unchanged. Highlight inheritance happens separately from the element tree, so we need some way to refer to the underlying foreground color.
That escape hatch is to set ‘color’ itself to ‘currentColor’, which is the default if nothing in the highlight tree sets ‘color’.
To make highlight inheritance actually useful for ‘text-decoration’ and ‘background-color’, all properties are inherited in highlight styles, even those that are not usually inherited.
This would conflict with the usual rules3 for decorating boxes, because descendants would get two decorations, one propagated and one inherited. We resolved this by making decorations added by highlights not propagate to any descendants.
Unstyled highlight pseudos generally don’t change the appearance of the original content, so the default ‘color’ and ‘background-color’ in highlights are ‘currentColor’ and ‘transparent’ respectively, the latter being the property’s initial value. But two highlight pseudos, ::selection and ::target-text, have UA default foreground and background colors.
For compatibility with ::selection in older browsers, the UA default ‘color’ and ‘background-color’ (e.g. white on blue) is only used if neither were set by the author. This rule is known as paired cascade, and for consistency it also applies to ::target-text.
|default on default plus more text|
|=||currentColor on yellow plus more text|
It’s common for selected text to almost invert the original text colors, turning black on white into white on blue, for example. To guarantee that the original decorations remain as legible as the text when highlighted, which is especially important for decorations with semantic meaning (e.g. line-through), originating decorations are recolored to the highlight ‘color’. This doesn’t apply to decorations added by highlights though, because that would break the typical appearance of spelling and grammar errors.
The default style rules for highlight pseudos might look something like this. Notice the new ‘spelling-error’ and ‘grammar-error’ decorations, which authors can use to imitate native spelling and grammar errors.
The way the highlight pseudos have been designed naturally leads to some limitations.
Removing decorations and shadows
Older browsers with ::selection tend to treat it purely as a way to change the original content’s styles, including text shadows and other decorations. Some tutorial content has even been written to that effect:
One of the most helpful uses for
::selectionis turning off a
text-shadowduring selection. A
text-shadowcan clash with the selection’s background color and make the text difficult to read. Set
text-shadow: none;to make text clear and easy to read during selection.
Under the spec, highlight pseudos can no longer remove or really change the original content’s decorations and shadows. Setting these properties in highlight pseudos to values other than ‘none’ adds decorations and shadows to the overlays when they are active.
While the new :has() selector might appear to offer a solution to this problem, pseudo-element selectors are not allowed in :has(), at least not yet.
Removing shadows that might clash with highlight backgrounds (as suggested in the tutorial above) will no longer be as necessary anyway, since highlight backgrounds now paint on top of the original text shadows.
If you still want to ensure those shadows don’t clash with highlights in older browsers, you can set ‘text-shadow’ to ‘none’, which is harmless in newer browsers.
As for line decorations, if you’re really determined, you can work around this limitation by using ‘-webkit-text-fill-color’, a standard property (believe it or not) that controls the foreground fill color of text4.
Fun fact: because of ‘-webkit-text-fill-color’ and its stroke-related siblings, it isn’t always possible for highlight pseudos to avoid changing the foreground colors of text, at least not without out-of-band knowledge of what those colors are.
Accessing global constants
Highlight pseudos also don’t automatically have access to custom properties set in the element tree, which can make things tricky if you have a design system that exposes a color palette via custom properties on :root.
You can work around this by adding selectors for the necessary highlight pseudos to the rule defining the constants, or if the necessary highlight pseudos are unknown, by rewriting each constant as a custom @property rule.
While the design of the highlight pseudos has mostly settled, there are still some unresolved issues to watch out for.
- how to use spelling and grammar decorations with the UA default colors (#7522)
- values of non-applicable properties, e.g. ‘text-shadow’ with em units (#7591)
- the meaning of underline- and emphasis-related properties in highlights (#7101)
- whether ‘-webkit-text-fill-color’ and friends are allowed in highlights (#7580)
- some browsers “tweak” the colors or alphas set in highlight styles (#6853)
- how the highlight pseudos are supposed to interact with SVG (svgwg#894)
The highlight pseudos are a radical departure from older browsers with ::selection, and have some significant differences with CSS as we know it. Now that we have some experimental support, we want your help to play around with these features and help us make them as useful and ergonomic as possible before they’re set in stone.
Special thanks to Rego, Brian, Eric (Igalia), Florian, fantasai (CSSWG), Emilio (Mozilla), and Dan for their work in shaping the highlight pseudos (and this post). We would also like to thank Bloomberg for sponsoring this work.
Dan, Fernando, Sanket, Luis, Bo, and anyone else I missed. ↩
This is actually the case everywhere the WHATWG compat spec applies, at all times. If you think about it, the only reason why setting ‘color’ to ‘red’ makes your text red is because ‘-webkit-text-fill-color’ defaults to ‘currentColor’. ↩