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Browser default actions

Many events automatically lead to browser actions.

For instance:

  • A click on a link -- initiates going to its URL.
  • A click on submit button inside a form -- initiates its submission to the server.
  • Pressing a mouse button over a text and moving it -- selects the text.

If we handle an event in JavaScript, often we don't want browser actions. Fortunately, it can be prevented.

Preventing browser actions

There are two ways to tell the browser we don't want it to act:

  • The main way is to use the event object. There's a method event.preventDefault().
  • If the handler is assigned using on<event> (not by addEventListener), then we can just return false from it.

In the example below there a click to links don't lead to URL change:

<a href="/" onclick="return false">Click here</a>
<a href="/" onclick="event.preventDefault()">here</a>

```warn header="Not necessary to return true" The value returned by an event handler is usually ignored.

The only exception -- is return false from a handler assigned using on<event>.

In all other cases, the return is not needed and it's not processed anyhow.

### Example: the menu

Consider a site menu, like this:

<ul id="menu" class="menu">
  <li><a href="/html">HTML</a></li>
  <li><a href="/javascript">JavaScript</a></li>
  <li><a href="/css">CSS</a></li>

Here's how it looks with some CSS:

[iframe height=70 src="menu" link edit]

Menu items are links <a>, not buttons. There are several benefits, for instance:

  • Many people like to use "right click" -- "open in a new window". If we use <button> or <span>, that doesn't work.
  • Search engines follow <a href="..."> links while indexing.

So we use <a> in the markup. But normally we intend to handle clicks in JavaScript. So we should prevent the default browser action.

Like here:

menu.onclick = function(event) {
  if ( != 'A') return;

  let href ='href');
  alert( href ); // ...can be loading from the server, UI generation etc

  return false; // prevent browser action (don't go to the URL)

If we omit return false, then after our code executes the browser will do its "default action" -- following to the URL in href.

By the way, using event delegation here makes our menu flexible. We can add nested lists and style them using CSS to "slide down".

Prevent further events

Certain events flow one into another. If we prevent the first event, there will be no second.

For instance, mousedown on an <input> field leads to focusing in it, and the focus event. If we prevent the mousedown event, there's no focus.

Try to click on the first <input> below -- the focus event happens. That's normal.

But if you click the second one, there's no focus.

<input value="Focus works" onfocus="this.value=''">
<input *!*onmousedown="return false"*/!* onfocus="this.value=''" value="Click me">

That's because the browser action is canceled on mousedown. The focusing is still possible if we use another way to enter the input. For instance, the key:Tab key to switch from the 1st input into the 2nd. But not with the mouse click any more.


The property event.defaultPrevented is true if the default action was prevented, and false otherwise.

There's an interesting use case for it.

You remember in the chapter info:bubbling-and-capturing we talked about event.stopPropagation() and why stopping bubbling is bad?

Sometimes we can use event.defaultPrevented instead.

Let's see a practical example where stopping the bubbling looks necessary, but actually we can do well without it.

By default the browser on contextmenu event (right mouse click) shows a context menu with standard options. We can prevent it and show our own, like this:

<button>Right-click for browser context menu</button>

<button *!*oncontextmenu="alert('Draw our menu'); return false"*/!*>
  Right-click for our context menu

Now let's say we want to implement our own document-wide context menu, with our options. And inside the document we may have other elements with their own context menus:

<p>Right-click here for the document context menu</p>
<button id="elem">Right-click here for the button context menu</button>

  elem.oncontextmenu = function(event) {
    alert("Button context menu");

  document.oncontextmenu = function(event) {
    alert("Document context menu");

The problem is that when we click on elem, we get two menus: the button-level and (the event bubbles up) the document-level menu.

How to fix it? One of solutions is to think like: "We fully handle the event in the button handler, let's stop it" and use event.stopPropagation():

<p>Right-click for the document menu</p>
<button id="elem">Right-click for the button menu (fixed with event.stopPropagation)</button>

  elem.oncontextmenu = function(event) {
    alert("Button context menu");

  document.oncontextmenu = function(event) {
    alert("Document context menu");

Now the button-level menu works as intended. But the price is high. We forever deny access to information about right-clicks for any outer code, including counters that gather statistics and so on. That's quite unwise.

An alternative solution would be to check in the document handler if the default action was prevented? If it is so, then the event was handled, and we don't need to react on it.

<p>Right-click for the document menu (fixed with event.defaultPrevented)</p>
<button id="elem">Right-click for the button menu</button>

  elem.oncontextmenu = function(event) {
    alert("Button context menu");

  document.oncontextmenu = function(event) {
    if (event.defaultPrevented) return;

    alert("Document context menu");

Now everything also works correctly. If we have nested elements, and each of them has a context menu of its own, that would also work. Just make sure to check for event.defaultPrevented in each contextmenu handler.

As we can clearly see, `event.stopPropagation()` and `event.preventDefault()` (also known as `return false`) are two different things. They are not related to each other.
There are also alternative ways to implement nested context menus. One of them is to have a special global object with a method that handles `document.oncontextmenu`, and also methods that allow to store various "lower-level" handlers in it.

The object will catch any right-click, look through stored handlers and run the appropriate one.

But then each piece of code that wants a context menu should know about that object and use its help instead of the own `contextmenu` handler.


There are many default browser actions:

  • mousedown -- starts the selection (move the mouse to select).
  • click on <input type="checkbox"> -- checks/unchecks the input.
  • submit -- clicking an <input type="submit"> or hitting key:Enter inside a form field causes this event to happen, and the browser submits the form after it.
  • wheel -- rolling a mouse wheel event has scrolling as the default action.
  • keydown -- pressing a key may lead to adding a character into a field, or other actions.
  • contextmenu -- the event happens on a right-click, the action is to show the browser context menu.
  • ...there are more...

All the default actions can be prevented if we want to handle the event exclusively by JavaScript.

To prevent a default action -- use either event.preventDefault() or return false. The second method works only for handlers assigned with on<event>.

If the default action was prevented, the value of event.defaultPrevented becomes true, otherwise it's false.

Technically, by preventing default actions and adding JavaScript we can customize the behavior of any elements. For instance, we can make a link `<a>` work like a button, and a button `<button>` behave as a link (redirect to another URL or so).

But we should generally keep the semantic meaning of HTML elements. For instance, `<a>` should preform navigation, not a button.

Besides being "just a good thing", that makes your HTML better in terms of accessibility.

Also if we consider the example with `<a>`, then please note: a browser allows to open such links in a new window (by right-clicking them and other means). And people like that. But if we make a button behave as a link using JavaScript and even look like a link using CSS, then `<a>`-specific browser features still won't work for it.