Underscores in class and ID Names

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Summary: The use of the underscore character in CSS can lead to major display problems in multiple browsers. Learn why this is so, and how to keep your sites from being bitten by this problem. This technical note examines the use of underscores in CSS, and why they should be generally avoided in most circumstances.

It is a fairly common practice in many programming languages to use the underscore character (_) in the place of a "space" in variable and function names. For example, a function whose job is to "get the length of a string" might be called get_string_length, and a variable representing the number of people who voted Republican might be voted_Republican.

Given this fact, authors who write CSS often attempt to employ the underscore in a similar fashion when creating class and ID names. This should not be done. Although underscores are, as of this writing, technically permitted in class and ID names, there are many historical and practical reasons why they should be avoided.

The CSS1 specification, published in its final form in 1996, did not allow for the use of underscores in class and ID names unless they were "escaped." An escaped underscore would look something like this:

p.urgent\_note {color: maroon;}

This was not well supported by browsers at the time, however, and the practice has never caught on. CSS2, published in 1998, also forbade the use of underscores in class and ID names. However, errata to the specification published in early 2001 made underscores legal for the first time. This unfortunately complicated an already complex landscape.

Support realities

Between mistakes in implementation and changes to the specification, browser behavior with regard to underscores is rather convoluted.

  • Netscape 6.x permits underscores and escaped underscores.
  • Navigator 4.x honored the restriction against underscores, and so any class or ID name with an underscore will be ignored by Navigator 4.x, so the associated styles will never be applied. It also ignored escaped underscores.
  • Internet Explorer 4.x and 5.x for Windows erroneously allowed underscores, and so were both non-conformant on this point until the errata was published. The same is true of IE4.x and 5.x for Macintosh.
  • Internet Explorer 6 for Windows, published after the errata, permits underscores and escaped underscores.
  • Opera 3.x through 5.x does not recognize underscores or escaped underscores, and so acts the same as Navigator 4.x in this regard.

Recommendation

Because support is so inconsistent between current browsers as well as older releases, authors are strongly advised to avoid using underscores in class and ID names. A common substitute is the hyphen character (-), as in:

p.urgent-note {color: maroon;}

Many authors choose instead to use "initial-cap" names such as this:

p.urgentNote {color: maroon;}

If the initial-cap approach is used, however, remember that class and ID names are also supposed to be case-sensitive. See the tech note "Case Sensitivity in class and id Names" for more details.

Original Document Information

  • Author(s): Eric A. Meyer, Netscape Communications
  • Last Updated Date: Published 05 Mar 2001
  • Copyright Information: Copyright © 2001-2003 Netscape. All rights reserved.
  • Note: This reprinted article was originally part of the DevEdge site.

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