TJ VanToll

Using the Attribute Selector with Numeric Values

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What color will the number 3 be in the example below?

    td { color: red; }
    td[colspan=2] { color: blue; }

        <td colspan="2">1</td>

Turns out it will be red because the td[colspan=2] selector does not match it. Why?

Attribute Selector

Per the CSS 3 specification values used in attribute selectors must be either identifiers or strings.

String values are those enclosed by single or double quotes (e.g. the 2 in the selector value="2"). If a value is not a string the browser attempts to resolve it as an identifier, which the spec defines as such:

“In CSS, identifiers (including element names, classes, and IDs in selectors) can contain only the characters [a-zA-Z0-9] and ISO 10646 characters U+00A0 and higher, plus the hyphen (-) and the underscore (_); they cannot start with a digit, two hyphens, or a hyphen followed by a digit.”

So why doesn’t colspan=2 work above? The key part from the spec is that “identifiers … cannot start with a digit”. Therefore, since 2 is not a string and does not qualify as an identifier, the browser ignores it. This behavior is implemented consistently in all browsers.

The fix? Simply wrap the value in quotes; both td[colspan='2'] and td[colspan="2"] will match the cell in the example above.

Numeric Attributes

Attributes that generally only have numeric values include colspan, rowspan, cellpadding, cellspacing, min, max, and step. When using any of these attributes in an attribute selector ensure that you wrap the value in quotes.


Most selector engines such as jQuery’s sizzle will make the selector work regardless of whether the quotes are present. $('td[colspan=2]') will return the cell in question in the example above.

However, if you are using native JavaScript though you will not be so lucky; document.querySelectorAll('td[colspan=2]') actually throws an error.


Attributes with numeric values need to have quotes around them when using them in CSS or JavaScript. When in doubt use quotes around attribute values; it never hurts, and there are some strange edge cases where omitting the quotes leads to unexpected behavior. If you’re looking for a more detailed writeup on when quotes are ok to omit checkout Mathias Bynens’ writeup on the topic.