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Visual formatting model Redirect 1

The CSS visual formatting model is the algorithm used to process a document and display it on a visual media. It is a basic concept of CSS. The visual formatting model will transform each element of the document and generate zero, one or several boxes conforming to the CSS box model. The layout of each box will be defined by:

  • its box dimensions: precisely defined or constrained, or not;
  • its box type: an inline, inline-level, atomic inline-level, block box;
  • the positioning scheme: in the normal flow, a float or absolute positioning;
  • the other elements in the tree: its children and neighbours;
  • the viewport size and position;
  • intrinsic dimensions of contained images;
  • other external information.

A box is rendered relatively to the edge of its containing block. Usually a box establishes the containing block for its descendants. Note that a box is not constrained by its containing block; when its layout goes outside it, it is said to overflow.

Box generation

The box generation is the part of the CSS visual formatting model that creates boxes from the document's elements. Generated boxes are of different types and affects the visual formatting model itself. The type of the box generated depends of the value of the display CSS property.

Block-level elements and block boxes

An element is said to be block-level when the calculated value of its display CSS property is: block, list-item or table. A block-level element is visually formatted as blocks (e.g. paragraph), intended to be vertically stacked.

A block-level box is a box participating in a block formatting context. Each block-level element generates at least one block-level box, called the principal block-level box. Some elements, like a list-item element generating further boxes to handle bullets and other typographic elements introducing the list item, may generate more boxes, but most generate only the principal block-level box.

The principal block-level box will contain descendant-generated boxes and generated content. It will also be the box involved in the positioning scheme.

venn_blocks.pngA block-level box may also be a block container box. A block container box is a box that contains only other block-level boxes, or creates an inline formatting context, and thus contains only inline boxes. It is important to note that the notions of block-level box and block container box are disjoined. The first describes how the box will behave with its parents and sibling, the second how it will interact with its descendants. Some block-level boxes, like tables, aren't block container boxes and, reciprocally, some block containing boxes, like non-replaced inline blocks and non-replaced table cells, aren't block-level blocks.

Block-level boxes that also are block container boxes are called block boxes.

Anonymous block boxes

In some cases, the visual formatting algorithm needs to add supplementary boxes. These boxes are called anonymous boxes, as they cannot be styled using CSS selectors. They cannot be named by one of them, hence the name anonymous.

As selectors do not work with them, it means that they cannot be styled via a style-sheet. It means that all inheritable CSS properties will have the inherit value and all non-inheritable CSS properties will have the initial value.

Block containing boxes contain only inline-level boxes or only block-level boxes. But often the document contains a mix of both. In that case anonymous block boxes are created around adjacent inline-level boxes.

If we take the following HTML code (with default styling applied to it, that is <div> and <p> elements have display:block :

<div>Some inline text <p>followed by a paragraph</p> followed by more inline text.</div>

two anonymous block boxes are created, one for the text before the paragraph (Some inline text) and one for the text after it (followed by more inline text), which gives the following block structure:


which leads to:

Some inline text
followed by a paragraph
followed by more inline text.

Unlike the <p> element's box, the web developers cannot control the style of the two anonymous boxes. For inheritable properties, they will take the value from the <div>'s property value, like color to define the color of the text, and set the others to the initial value. For example, they won't have a specific background-color, it will always be transparent, the initial value for that property, and thus the background of the <div> will be visible. In the opposite a specific background-color can be applied to the <p> box. Similarly, the two anonymous boxes will always use the same color for their text.

Another case which leads to the creation of anonymous block boxes is when an inline box contains one or several block boxes. In that case, the box containing the block box is split in two inline boxes - one before and one after the block box. All the inline boxes before the block box are then enclosed into an anonymous block box, so are the inline boxes following the block box. Therefore the block box becomes the sibling of the two anonymous block boxes containing the inline elements.

If there are several block boxes, without inline content in-between, the anonymous block boxes are created before and after the set of boxes.

TBD: Describe example

Inline-level elements and inline boxes

An element is said to be inline-level when the calculated value of its display CSS property is: inline, inline-block or inline-table. Visually, it doesn't constitute blocks of contents but is distributed in lines with other inline-level content. Typically content of a paragraph, being text, with different formatting like emphasing, or images, is made from inline-level elements.


This diagram uses outdated terminology; see note below.

Inline-level elements generate inline-level boxes that are defined as boxes participating to an inline formatting context. Inline boxes are both inline-level boxes and boxes that participate to theirs container inline formatting context. This is the case for example for all non-replaced boxes with display:inline. Inline-level boxes that are not participating to an inline formatting context are called atomic inline-level boxes. These boxes, generated by replaced inline-level elements or by elements with a calculated display value of inline-block or inline-table, are never split in several boxes, like it is possible with inline boxes.

Note: Initially, atomic inline-level boxes were called atomic inline boxes. This was rather unfortunate as they are not inline boxes. This was corrected in an erratum to the spec. Nevertheless, you can harmlessly read atomic inline-level box each time you meet atomic inline box in the literature as this only is a name change.
Atomic inline boxes cannot be split into several lines in an inline formatting context.
  span {
    display:inline; /* default value*/
<div style="width:20em;">
   The text in the span <span>can be split in several
   lines as it</span> is an inline box.

which leads to:

The text in the span can be split in several lines as it is an inline box.
  span {
<div style="width:20em;">
   The text in the span <span>cannot be split in several
   lines as it</span> is an inline-block box.

which leads to:

The text in the span cannot be split in several lines as it is an inline-block box.

Anonymous inline boxes

Like for block boxes, there are a few cases where inline boxes are created automatically by the CSS engine. These inline boxes are also anonymous as they cannot be named by selectors; they will inherit the value of all inheritable properties and set it to initial for all others.

The most common case where an anonymous inline box is created is when some text is found as a direct child of a block box creating an inline formatting context. In that case, this text is included in the largest possible anonymous inline box. Also space content that would finally be removed by the behavior set by the white-space CSS property do not generate anonymous inline box as they would end empty.

Example TBD

Other types of boxes

Line boxes

Line boxes are a type of boxes that are generated in inline formatting context to represent a line. Inside a block box, a line box extend from one border of the box to the other. When there are floats, the line box starts from the rightmost border of the left floats and ends to the leftmost border of the right floats.

These boxes are technical and a web author usually do not have to bother with them.

Run-in boxes

Run-in boxes, defined using display:run-in, are boxes that are either block boxes or inline boxes depending of the type of the following box. They can be used to create title that run inside their first paragraph when possible.

Note: Run-in boxes were removed from the CSS 2.1 standard, as they were insufficiently specified to allow for interoperable implementation. They may reappear in CSS3, but meanwhile are considered experimental. They should not be used in production.

Model-induced boxes

Beside the inline and block formatting contexts, CSS allows for more content models to be applied to elements. These additional models, used to describe specific layouts, may define additional box types:

  • The table content model may create a table wrapper box and a table box, but also specific boxes like caption boxes.
  • The multi-column content model may create column boxes between the container box and the content.
  • The experimental grid or flex-box content models also create additional types of boxes.

Positioning schemes

Once boxes are generated, the CSS engine needs to position them on the layout. In order to do that, it will use one of the following algorithm:

  • The normal flow in which it will lay each box one after the other.
  • The floats algorithm which will extract the box from the normal flow and put it to the side of the current box, creating typographic pull quotes on the side of the containing box.
  • The absolute positioning scheme in which a box is absolutely, though the coordinate system origin may vary on the document. The absolute positioned element can cover other elements positioned using other schemes.

Normal flow

In the normal flow boxes are laid out one after the other. In a block formatting context, they are laid out vertically; in an inline formatting context, they are laid out horizontally. The normal flow is triggered when the CSS position is set to the value static or relative, and if the CSS float is set to the value none.

When in the normal flow, in a block formatting context, boxes are laid vertically one after the other out:


When in the normal flow, in an inline formatting context, boxes are laid horizontally one after the other out:


There is two sub-cases in the normal flow: static positioning and relative positioning:

  • In static positioning, triggered by the value static of the position property, the boxes are drawn at the exact position defined by the normal flow layout.
  • In relative positioning, triggered by the value relative of the position property, the boxes are drawn with an offset defined by the top, bottom, left and right CSS properties.


In the float positioning scheme, boxes, called floating boxes or simply floats, are positioned at the beginning or end of the current line. This leads to the property that text, and more generally boxes part of the normal flow flow along the edge of these boxes, except if told differently by the clear CSS property.

The float positioning scheme is selected by setting the float CSS property to a value different than none when position is set to static or relative. If float is set to left, the float is positioned at the beginning of the line box, shrinking it; if set to right, the float is positioned at the end of the line box, shrinking it too.


Absolute positioning

In the absolute positioning scheme, boxes are entirely removed from the flow and don't interact with it at all. They are positioned relative to their containing block using the top, bottom, left and right CSS properties.

An element is absolutely positioned if the position is set to absolute or fixed.

A fixed positioned element is an absolutely positioned element that its containing block is the viewport. Such element will be fixed on the screen when scrolling as the viewport is not moving.

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Contributors to this page: Sheppy
Last updated by: Sheppy,