HTML elements can be displayed either in block or inline style.

The difference between these is one of the most basic things you need to know in order to use CSS effectively.

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The 3 ways that HTML elements can be displayed

All HTML elements are naturally displayed in one of the following ways:

Block
Takes up the full width available, with a new line before and after (display:block;)
Inline
Takes up only as much width as it needs, and does not force new lines (display:inline;)
Not displayed
Some tags, like <meta /> and <style> are not visible (display:none;)

Block example

<p> tags and <div> tags are naturally displayed block-style.

(I say “naturally” because you can override the display style by setting the CSS display property e.g. display:inline;.)

A block-display element will span the full width of the space available to it, and so will start on a new line in the flow of HTML. The flow will continue on a new line after the block-display element.

Here I’ve started a paragraph and now I’m going to insert a <div>

new div inside my paragraph

and then continue the text here…

See how the <div> jumped in and took over the full width of the space?

Common HTML elements that are naturally block-display include:

<div>
Your general-purpose box
<h1> … <h6>
All headings
<p>
Paragraph
<ul>, <ol>, <dl>
Lists (unordered, ordered and definition)
<li>, <dt>, <dd>
List items, definition list terms, and definition list definitions
<table>
Tables
<blockquote>
Like an indented paragraph, meant for quoting passages of text
<pre>
Indicates a block of preformatted code
<form>
An input form

Inline example

Inline-display elements don’t break the flow. They just fit in with the flow of the document.

So here I’ve got a paragraph going on, and I’m going to add a <span> tag that has a yellow background and italic text. See how it just fits right in with the flow of the text?

More elements are naturally inline-style, including:

<span>
Your all-purpose inline element
<a>
Anchor, used for links (and also to mark specific targets on a page for direct linking)
<strong>
Used to make your content strong, displayed as bold in most browsers, replaces the narrower <b> (bold) tag
<em>
Adds emphasis, but less strong than <strong>. Usually displayed as italic text, and replaces the old <i> (italic) tag
<img />
Image
<br>
The line-break is an odd case, as it’s an inline element that forces a new line. However, as the text carries on on the next line, it’s not a block-level element.
<input>
Form input fields like
and
<abbr>
Indicates an abbr. (hover to see how it works)
<acronym>
Working much like the abbreviation, but used for things like this TLA.

You change the display property of any elements

Although each HTML element has its natural display style, you can over-ride these in CSS.

This can be very useful when you want your page to look a particular way while using semantically-correct HTML.

Examples

Say you want to provide a list of items, but you don’t want a big bulleted list. You just want to say that you’re going to the store to buy:

  • some fizzy drinks,
  • a chainsaw,
  • and some nylon stockings.

Or maybe you want a nice toolbar, which is stricly a list (of links) and so should be marked up as a <ul>.

Here’s the code

<ul>

<li><a href=”#”>Home</a></li>
<li><a href=”#”>About us</a></li>
<li><a href=”#”>Products</a></li>
<li><a href=”#”>FAQs</a></li>
<li><a href=”#”>Contact us</a></li>

</ul>

Here’s how it looks as a normal list

Just adding the class “toolbar”…

<style type=”text/css”>

.toolbar li {

display:inline;
background-color:#eee;
border:1px solid;
border-color:#f3f3f3 #bbb #bbb #f3f3f3;
margin:0;
padding:.5em;
zoom: 1;

}

</style>

<ul class=”toolbar”>

<li><a href=”#”>Home</a></li>
<li><a href=”#”>About us</a></li>
<li><a href=”#”>Products</a></li>
<li><a href=”#”>FAQs</a></li>
<li><a href=”#”>Contact us</a></li>

</ul>

 

Here’s how it looks with the CSS styles applied

 

 

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About the author

Ben Hunt

Ben has over 20 years' experience in web design and marketing, and is one of the most influential figures on the subject of effective web design. He has written a bunch of books and spoken at multiple conferences internationally. In 2015, Ben created Open-Source Marketing, which promises to turn the practice of marketing upside down.. Find out more at http://opensourcemarketingproject.org

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