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The power of sibling combinators

CSS has a built-in tool called sibling combinators that can relate several selectors to each other and use this relationship for styling.

For example, if you want to style paragraphs, then you use something like the following:

p {
  margin: 1.5rem 0;
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Pretty straightforward!

However, if you want to add a particular style only when that paragraph follows a specific HTML tag, using sibling combinators is an excellent approach.

4 types

There are four types of combinators:

Type Symbol
descendent a space
child >
adjacent +
general sibling ~

Source: MDN - CSS combinators

Descendent combinator

.nav-menu a {
  color: pink;
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The above example is the most widely used combinator. It selects all descendents of an element. It's pretty cool to group styles, preventing harmful side effects elsewhere on the page.

The child combinator > li {
  margin-left: 1.5rem;
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Unlike the descendent combinator, this one selects direct children only. It's pretty cool to style nested lists, for example.

The adjacent combinator

h2 + p:first-letter {
  font-size: 175%;
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This one selects the direct sibling of the first element. Only paragraphs that immediately follow an h2 will be selected in the example above.

The general sibling combinator

h2 ~ p {
  padding: .5rem;
  background-color: black;
  color: white;
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The general sibling combinator selects all siblings of the first element. In the example above, all paragraphs that come after an h2 will be selected.

You can use the general sibling combinator to toggle a div with CSS only. Not that it's complicated to code in JavaScript, but CSS can do that:

<label for="mycheckbox">Check me</label>
<input type="checkbox" id="mycheckbox" class="mycheckbox">

<p class="mydiv">
Show me
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.mydiv {
  display: none;
  background: yellow;
  padding: 7px;
.mycheckbox:checked ~ .mydiv {
   display: block;
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Stay focus

These combinators are powerful but quite misknown. As far as I know, the primary purpose is to style specific HTML parts accurately.

They are a great alternative to some approaches that involve meaningless HTML classes and over-complicated HTML skeletons with tones of div.

If your CSS combinator does not work for some reason, you likely misuse it.

You can bookmark this post and/or the documentation to ease your debug.

Photo by Chayene Rafaela on Unsplash

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