New Inheritance Features in CSS

In this article, let’s explore the new inheritance features that you may not be aware of and see where these features fit in well to be used and how to use them effectively.

Inheritance in CSS is actually very straightforward. Imagine you need to specify the font-size or font-family of every element, instead of simply adding it to the body element. That would be cumbersome, which is why inheritance is so helpful. You specify a font-size for all common and obvious elements in a single rule (body{}) and it’s applied to all of them.

Well, that’s not today’s agenda. I’m will instead the keywords used for inheritance in CSS: "inherit", "initial" and "unset".

A little of the basics first. The word “cascade” in CSS means that the final style is calculated based on the last value assigned to a specific property of a selector. For example,

in the following CSS snippet, the value of the property “color” for the selector “P” will have the value “green” since it is the last value assigned, not “red”.

property color

How inheritance works in CSS

In CSS, inheritance is a way of propagating property values from parent elements to their children. It should not be confused with Object Oriented Programming Inheritance since it’s quite different from that.

The CSS specification determines whether each property is inherited by default or not. Not all properties are inherited, but you can force ones to be by using the inherit value.

The final value of a property is the result of a four-step calculation: the value is determined through specification (the “specified value”), then resolved into a value that is used for inheritance (the “computed value”), then converted into an absolute value if necessary (the “used value”), and finally transformed depending on the limitations of the local environment (the “actual value”).

A little In-Depth of the terms

Specified Value: The user agent determines whether the value of the property comes from a style sheet, is inherited or should use its initial value.

Computed Value: The specified value is resolved to a computed value and exists even when a property doesn’t apply. The document doesn’t need to be laid out for the computed value to be determined.

Used Value: The used value takes the computed value and resolves any dependencies that can only be calculated after the document has been laid out (like percentages).

Actual Value: This is the value used for the final rendering, after any approximations have been applied (for example, converting a decimal to an integer).

If you look at any CSS property’s specification then you’ll see that it defines it’s initial (or default) value, the elements it applies to, its inheritance status and its computed value (among others). For example, the background-color specification states the following:

CSS property specification


Observe the code snippet below:

code snippet

Here we have two div elements, one is a container (parent) and the other is a child.

Both the pictures have some height and width specified. In the first picture, with the “background-color” property omitted, you can see there’s no color available for the child div. It inherits no background property but uses its initial/default value, in other words “transparent”.

Whereas, in the second picture you can see there is a green background color if the property is applied.

When an element inherits a value from its parent, it inherits its computed value. Because the computed value exists even if it isn’t specified in the style sheet, a property can be inherited even then: the initial value will be used.

div elements

property: inherit;

The inherit keyword means “use whatever value is assigned to my parent”. If no value was explicitly defined on the parent element, the browser works up the DOM tree until the property is found. Ultimately, it ends at the browser default, for example:

inherit Property

Please note, it’s rarely necessary to use inherit. Many of the more useful properties automatically cascade down, for example fonts, font sizes, colors, and so on. but it may not be all of them.

Inherit is safe to use and it’s supported by IE from IE8 and your design is unlikely to break without it.

property: initial;

The new CSS3 keyword "initial" sets a property back to its starting value, the default defined by the browser, for example:

initial Property

Is it useful? Well, potentially and after all, it depends on the context of the requirements. Support is reasonable; Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera 15+. It won’t work in IE.

property: unset;

This is a slightly unusual one. When unset is used, it acts as if it were inherit when an inherited value is available. If it can’t find one, for example, it’s a non-inherited property such as a box-shadow, then it acts like an initializer and applies the default browser value.

As if now it’s not much of use and has a little support.

all: [ inherit | initial | unset ];

Finally, "all" is a property rather than a value. You can assign either inherit, initial or unset to affect all properties, for example to reset every CSS property back to the browser default:

all property

This can play a vital role if you’re trying to implement a third-party widget or a portion of the page having a different look and feel.


We have learned the inheritance values inherit, initial and unset as well as the property “all” to override all the inheritance for each element inside a container.
Thanks for reading. Feedback and comments are highly appreciated :) 

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