Control your drop caps with CSS initial-letter

Control your drop caps with CSS initial-letter

The art of styling drop caps has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Its use in print styles to signify the start of a new section or chapter can be seen through history. But, it’s always been problematic to style in the digital age. There hasn’t been a “clean” solution to styling them.

The CSS initial-letter property will make things much easier.

Browser support

Where can you try initial-letter? It’s available in Safari and from Chrome 110. In Safari, the property needs the -webkit- prefix. There is an open issue for it to be implemented in Firefox.

There is also an open Chromium issue detailing the related properties initial-letter-align and initial-letter-wrap that are still to be implemented as per the CSSWG spec.

Test for initial-letter support with:

@supports (initial-letter: 1 1) { /* Your supported styles */ }

Current solutions

How might you style a drop cap in CSS today?

The :first-letter pseudo-class gets us part of the way.

p:first-letter {
color: hsl(220, 94%, 51%);
font-weight: bold;
font-size: 4rem;
}

But then you likely need to reach for properties like “float” whilst calculating a size for that first letter.

p:first-letter {
color: hsl(220, 94%, 51%);
font-weight: bold;
font-size: 4rem;
float: left;
line-height: 1;
margin-right: 0.25rem;
}

The introduction of new CSS units like lh could ease some of this pain. But, these have limited support too (lh is currently only supported in Chrome).

p:first-letter {
color: hsl(220, 94%, 51%);
font-weight: bold;
font-size: 3lh;
float: left;
line-height: 1;
margin-right: 0.1lh;
}

Introducing initial-letter

The initial-letter property gives you finer control over this drop cap styling. It takes two space separated values:

p:first-letter {
initial-letter: 3.5 3;
}
  • The first argument defines the size of the letter and how many lines it will occupy. The letter will scale up whilst maintaining its aspect ratio.You can’t use a negative value but you can use decimal values.
  • The second argument defines the letter sink. This can be thought of as the offset for where the letter will sit. The second value is optional and can’t be negative. If it isn’t present, it assumes the value for the letter size floored to the nearest integer. This is equivalent to using the keyword “drop”. The sink also accepts another keyword value, “raise” which is equivalent to a sink of 1.

Check out this demo where you can change the values to see how it affects the drop cap styling.

Combine it with :first-line and you could have something like this

p:first-line {
font-variant: small-caps;
font-weight: bold;
font-size: 1.25rem;
}
p:first-letter {
font-family: "Merriweather", serif;
initial-letter: 3.5 3;
font-weight: bold;
line-height: 1;
margin-right: 1rem;
color: #3b5bdb;
text-shadow: 0.25rem 0.25rem #be4bdb;
}

Or perhaps, give it a border. Note how the following example uses the “drop” keyword which would be the default if omitted and equates to 3:

p:first-letter {
font-family: "Merriweather", serif;
initial-letter: 3.5 drop;
font-weight: bold;
line-height: 1;
margin-right: 1rem;
color: #3b5bdb;
border: 0.25rem dashed #be4bdb;
padding: 0.5rem;
border-radius: 5px;
}

Maybe add a background or some box-shadow:

p:first-letter {
font-family: "Merriweather", serif;
initial-letter: 3.5 3;
font-weight: bold;
line-height: 1;
margin-right: 1rem;
color: var(--surface-1);
background: #be4bdb;
padding: 0.5rem;
border-radius: 5px;
box-shadow: 0.5rem 0.5rem 0 #3b5bdb;
}

Or clip the background to the text:

p:first-letter {
background: linear-gradient(to bottom right,#1f005c,#5b0060,#870160,#ac255e,#ca485c,#e16b5c,#f39060,#ffb56b);
font-family: "Merriweather", serif;
initial-letter: 3.5 3;
font-weight: bold;
line-height: 1;
margin-right: 1rem;
color: transparent;
-webkit-background-clip: text;
padding: 0.5rem;
}

You’ve got a lot of possibilities!

And there you have it, finer control over your drop cap styling with initial-letter! Would you add drop caps to your typography? How might you style them? Let us know!

This post is also available in: Control your drop caps with CSS initial-letterEnglish