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Placeholder for empty lists in CSS

Call me a weirdo but one of my guilty pleasures is to implement minimalist apps with vanilla JavaScript.

Especially now that we can do ES6, async/await and even modules, it's a bliss! No npm, no browserify, no transpilation, just those three files index.html, style.css and script.js— like we used to do 15 years ago — pure sweetness :)

Today I needed to show a «Empty» placeholder when a <ul> list is empty (ie. no <li> child). My first attempt consisted in checking if the list had more than one child, more or less like so:

const list = document.querySelector("ul");
if (list.childNodes.length == 1) {
  list.textContent = "";  // Remove placeholder.

That's disturbing, bad and ugly. Mainly because the Empty text node is also a child node, but especially because of this if statement in the application code. Like Linus said at TED, «[…] good code is when the special case goes away and becomes the normal case» :)

Like it or not, but CSS can really help to keep the HTML and JS code to bare minimum. After a little research, I discovered that the :empty selector works on any tag! And look, the special case goes away!

ul:empty::after {
  content: "Empty";
const list = document.querySelector("ul");

Yes, that's better!

In order to keep the CSS a little more decoupled from content, we can even do:

<ul placeholder="Empty"></ul>
ul:empty::after {
  content: attr(placeholder);

Some folks achieve amazing stuff using simple but powerful CSS rules! I often use these tabs for example :)

Comments !