Document describing interaction of inline layout and wrapping around floats.
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CSS Inline Vertical Alignment and Line Wrapping Around Floats

... or why implementing CSS 2.1 is harder than you thought

by L. David Baron

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Prerequisite reading: CSS 2, chapters 8, 9, and 10.

This document starts with some observations about some pieces of the CSS box model that are tricky to implement, and then describes how they are currently implemented in Gecko and how I believe they could be implemented better.


The anchor point for a float need not be at a line breaking opportunity

Conceptually, although it's not described in the spec, floats have a place that they come from: essentially, where they would have been if they'd been a non-floated inline. In Gecko, we actually place an empty inline there and call it the float's placeholder. It probably makes more sense to call it the float's anchor point.

There's no requirement that this anchor point be at a line breaking opportunity. It's perfectly legal markup to write:

<p>This is a ridicul<img style="float:left">ous example.</p>

This is interesting because the float placement rules in CSS 2 (also see why they're bad) generally want the float placed next to the line containing its anchor point. But if that's not possible (because placing the float there would shorten the line enough that the anchor point no longer fits), then the float gets pushed down so that it doesn't intersect the line.

So, logically, we can't be sure we've placed the float at a position until we've gotten to the first line breaking opportunity at or after its anchor point. But more on that later, after my other observations.

The width available for a line wrapped around floats is a function of that line's height

Because of the float placement rules in CSS 2, the float can't be above its anchor point, but it can be substantially below its anchor point. This can happen, for example, if there are multiple floats that are too big to all fit next to each other, or if some of the floats use the 'clear' property, which clears them past other floats. This sort of situation, with the top of a float being substantially below its anchor point, is relatively common on Wikipedia.

When this happens, the lines that come logically after the float have to wrap around the float. A later float might be wider than a float before it, which means that the available width for the lines that are wrapping around floats might decrease with downward movement. The rules for wrapping lines around floats say that the lines must not intersect any floats whose vertical positions they overlap with. (In particular, section 9.5 of CSS 2 says "A line box is next to a float when there exists a vertical position that satisfies all of these four conditions: (a) at or below the top of the line box, (b) at or above the bottom of the line box, (c) below the top margin edge of the float, and (d) above the bottom margin edge of the float.")

This, in turn, means that making an individual line taller might reduce the amount of horizontal space available to it. An implementation that fails to consider this (which happens in a number of implementations, actually, but Gecko gets it mostly right) ends up with text overlapping the upper part of the float, as in this screenshot. (This also applies to elements establishing new block formatting contexts that wrap around floats; Gecko doesn't get that case right.)

This, in turn, means that placing something new on a line (for example, an inline image) that fits horizontally might not fit because it makes the line taller which in turn reduces the available width for the line.

'vertical-align' is tricky

The values of the vertical-align property fall into two groups. One group is the 'top' and 'bottom' values. The other group is all the rest of the values.

For all values other than top or bottom, vertical-align describes how an element is aligned relative to its parent.

The 'top' and 'bottom' values, on the other hand, describe the position of that element relative to the line. Or, really, they describe the position of of that element and its descendants that are aligned to it relative to the line, since the element with 'top' or 'bottom' can have a descendant that extends above or below the element's top and bottom.

In essence, this means vertical alignment operates in terms of subtrees that are glued together instantly, one for the root of the line (the block containing it) and one for each element with 'top' or 'bottom' vertical-alignment. These subtrees, while fixed immediately within the subtree, have unknown position relative to each other (I've called them "loose") until all content is placed on the line.

Floats usually, but not always, have sizes that don't depend on their position

According to the CSS specifications, the size of a float doesn't depend at all on its position; the size is simply computed from the CSS properties on the float, its contents, and the size of its containing block.

However, floating tables, in quirks mode, show a different behavior. (It's worth investigating if this behavior is still needed for backwards-compatibility, since it introduces a good bit of complexity.) Floating tables in quirks mode use the width available for lines to fit in (which considers floats adjacent to the line or table) in their sizing rules, in place of the width of the containing block. (In general, sizing this way produces very bad effects when multiple floats are used and shrink wrapped, as described in TODO: LINK HERE (and also see the bug where this problem was fixed in Gecko).)

In Gecko, this quirk is implemented in nsBlockReflowState::FlowAndPlaceFloat and nsBlockFrame::AdjustFloatAvailableSpace.

This single case adds extra complexity to the problem of float layout (unless it turns out it's possible to remove it from the Web).

Multi-pass line layout in Gecko

In Gecko, related to the above reasons, there are three reasons that we repeat layout of a line. The repetition is implemented in the loops in nsBlockFrame::ReflowInlineFrames. These three reasons are:

LineReflowStatus::RedoNoPull: We redo the line's reflow when we've placed content on the line past the last break that fits. This happens because, in Gecko, we place one frame (box, rendering object) on the line at a time. There are frequently not break opportunities between frames. For example, the following markup has multiple frames but no breaking opportunities:


This case is essentially a workaround for the way Gecko does inline layout.

LineReflowStatus::RedoMoreFloats: This is the case that reflects one of the observations above, that the width available for a line can decrease if the line takes up more height. In Gecko, when that happens, we start layout of the line over again, decreasing its width to the width available with the new height. (The first time through assumes the line will have zero height, which is actually probably too conservative.)

This case could be avoided if we avoided placing unbreakable units on the line if they would increase the line's height in a way that would decrease the line's width such that that unit wouldn't fit. (This requires, when placing each unit, doing enough of the vertical alignment process to determine its effect on the line's height. See below.)

LineReflowStatus::RedoNextBand: This happens when the first unbreakable unit ("word") on the line doesn't fit next to floats. In this case we have to move the entire line down, until either the word fits or there are no longer floats next to it. It might appear that this doesn't require redoing the layout of the line. However, I believe that it does because of floats whose anchor points might be in the middle of that first word. We normally position and lay out (reflow) floats when we reach their anchor point during inline layout. If we only pushed the line down without layout out that first word again, we would fail to lay out the floats again.

This could be avoided by not placing and laying out the floats until we've committed the word that contains their anchor point to a line. This appears to me to be the correct time, in the sense that we want to do this after things that can influence their position, but before things whose position they influence. (That's generally how we want to order our layout calculations. While the current order for floats is close to correctly ordered, the LineReflowStatus::RedoNextBand is a workaround for it not being quite right.)

Vertical alignment in Gecko

Part of the need for these multi-pass cases in line layout is related to the way we do vertical alignment in Gecko: at the end of the line layout process. We do horizontal layout first, and then when we're done (but still inside the above repetition loops), do vertical alignment for the entire line in nsLineLayout::VerticalAlignLine. This function does two passes over the line, one (VerticalAlignFrames) to handle all of the parent-relative 'vertical-align' values (anything other than 'top' and 'bottom') and gather the information needed for the line-relative 'vertical-align' values ('top' and 'bottom') and then another pass (PlaceTopBottomFrames) to finish the alignment of the line-relative values. This means that line height calculations are not done at all until line layout is complete, which is one thing that would need to be changed to avoid multi-pass layout in the cases above.

A possible single-pass line layout solution

So I think (though I haven't worked it through in too much detail) that it should be possible to do line layout in a way that is always single pass. It requires addressing the issues above with some care; in particular:

  1. Inline layout needs to have a notion of committing each unbreakable unit to the line, even if that unbreakable unit contains multiple elements.

  2. Float layout and placement should happen after the unbreakable unit containing the float's anchor point has been committed to the line. (An anchor point in between unbreakable units, however, should not, I think, ever attach to the following unbreakable unit, though.)

  3. Vertical alignment and line height calculation needs to be done incrementally as unbreakable units are committed to the line. This means (a) computing all parent-relative alignment immediately (b) propagating the effects on line-height up to the closest ancestor with line-relative alignment or to the line and (c) keeping track of the largest contribution to line box height from a line-relative piece (the line itself, or an element with line-relative alignment). Really, this needs to be compute prior to commiting the word to the line, and then committed afterwards, along with committing the word.

  4. TODO: more description

TODO: consider quirks mode floating tables

TODO: consider breaks with different priorities