text-transform - Content or Presentation?

HTML and CSS are all about separating the content of a site, from the presentation. As with most things though, there are grey areas, and for a lot of people text-transform is one of them. Some people regard changing the case of text as being a content issue, others see it as a presentation issue.

Personally, I prefer to think of it as a presentation issue for one very good reason; to cover as many scenarios as possible. Suppose you have some mark-up, where the text needs to be in uppercase, because that's how you want a menu to look. You could write the HTML like this,
	<li>SOME OPTION</li>

This is all well and good, and is perfectly reasonable. Now suppose though that the design needs to change, and these need to be in lowercase instead. Not a problem, since you can use text-transform to convert them to lowercase.
ul li {
	text-transform: lowercase;

But now what if it needs to be capitalized instead? You can just use text-transform: capitalize; right? Unfortunately not. A little known part of "text-transform: capitalize" is that is only changes the first letter of each word to be uppercase. It doesn't touch any other letters. This isn't a bug, it's specifically designed this way. But it could give you problems if you haven't thought ahead, since most people expect it to also transform the other letters to lowercase.

In the above example, you would never be able to capitalize the words. Yes, you could start with lowercase in the HTML rather than uppercase. Then you can use text-transform to make it uppercase, and capitalized. Except it would still be all in lowercase if someone were to view the site without a stylesheet.

My suggestion then, is to capitalize things like this in the HTML. So taking my above example again, I would write it like this in the HTML,
	<li>Some Option</li>
	<li>Another Option</li>

This way you can have full control over the case by using CSS. You can either leave it as it is, make it uppercase, or lowercase. It also means it will be properly capitalized if someone were to view the site without a stylesheet. This way you're not dictating the style in the content.

As with anything though, there are of course exceptions. If a product or trademark name is in all uppercase, or uses different cases within a word, then this would actually be considered the content rather than the presentation. An example of this would be something like "JavaScript", where the J and S should always be uppercase. In those kinds of scenarios, I wouldn't imagine that the case is ever going to change when the design changes, since it's a trademark, brand name etc.

If you need another option, like every other character uppercase or something, then you'll need to do something server-side to change it. CSS2.1 is good, but not that good. You could come up with a JavaScript solution, but JavaScript isn't always the answer.

It's all a matter of analysing the situation and deciding the best way to do it. Could the design change in future, and if so, would it be possible to have the control needed using just CSS? A good rule of thumb is to think the following, "If I view the page without a stylesheet, does the text still accurately reflect what I need it to?". But remember not to be caught out by how text-transform: capitalize; works.
Picture of Rich Adams.

Hi! I'm Rich. By day I work on cloud security at Indeed. By night I wear a cape and fight crime1. I'm on Twitter as @r_adams, and also used to write things on the PagerDuty blog.

1 probably not true


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