Understanding Sass lists

Edit (2015/05/28): After realising this article ranks up incredibly high on Sass Google searches, I come back to it to clear a few things up. Deletions are lined-through, additions are in italic.

Lists have to be the most complicated and vicious thing in the whole Sass language. The main problem with lists -if a problem it is- is that the syntax is way too permissive. You can do pretty much whatever you want.

Anyway, I recently had the opportunity to write an article for CSS-Tricks about a Sass function involving quite a lot of list manipulation. I introduced the topic by clearing a couple of things regarding Sass lists but I wanted to write a more in-depth article.

Creating a Sass list

First things first. Even creating a Sass list can be tricky. Indeed, Sass isn’t very strict with variable types. Basically it means you can process a list quite like a string, or use list functions on a string single value. It is basically kind of a mess.

Anyway, we have a couple of ways to initialize an empty variable (that could be treated as a list): There is a single way to initialize an empty variable (whatever that means), and it’s with null.

Sass isn’t very strict with variable type.

$a: ();
$b: unquote('');
$c: null;
$d: (null);

Now we have defined our variables, we will check their type. Just for fun.

type-of($a) -> list
type-of($b) -> string
type-of($c) -> null
type-of($d) -> null

Since $c and $d are stricly equivalent, we will remove the later from the next tests. Let’s check the length of each variable.

length($a) -> 0
length($b) -> 1
length($c) -> 1

$a being 0 item long is what we would have expected since it is an empty list. String being 1 item long isn’t that odd either since it is a string. However the null variable being 1 item long is kind of weird; more on this later. It’s not weird either; null is pretty much a value like another, so it has a length of 1.

Sass list “fun” facts

This section has been quickly covered in the article at CSS-Tricks but since it is the very basics I have to put this here as well.

You can use spaces or commas as separator. Even if I feel more comfortable with commas since it is the classic separator for arrays (JavaScript, PHP…). You can check the separator of a list with the list-separator($list) function.

$list-space: "item-1" "item-2" "item-3";
$list-comma: "item-1", "item-2", "item-3";

Note: As in CSS, you can ommit quotes for your strings as long as they don’t contain any special characters. So $list: item-1, item-2, item-3 is perfectly valid.

You can nest lists. As for JavaScript or any other language, there is no limit regarding the level of depth you can have with nested lists. Just go as deep as you need to, bro.

/* Nested lists with braces and same separator */
$list: ( 
    ("item-1.1", "item-1.2", "item-1.3"), 
    ("item-2.1", "item-2.2", "item-2.3"),
    ("item-3.1", "item-3.2", "item-3.3")
/* Nested lists without braces using different separators to distinguish levels */
$list: "item-1.1" "item-1.2" "item-1.3", 
       "item-2.1" "item-2.2" "item-2.3",
       "item-3.1" "item-3.2" "item-3.3";

You can ommit parentheses (as you can guess from the previous example). You can define a non-empty list without any parentheses if you feel so. This is because -contrarily to what most people think- parentheses are not what create lists in Sass (except when empty); it is the delimiter (see below). Braces are a just a grouping mecanism.

Note: This is the theory. I’ve noticed braces are not just a grouping mecanism. When manipulating matrices (4/5+ levels of nesting), braces are definitely not optional. This is too complicated for today though, we’ll dig into this in another blog post.

Manipulating 5+ nested lists is a pain in the ass.

$list: "item-1", "item-2", "item-3";

Indexes start at 1, not 0. This is one of the most disturbing once you start experimenting with Sass lists. Plus it makes a lot of things pretty complicated (cf CSS-Tricks article). No, it doesn’t.

nth($list, 0) -> throws error
nth($list, 1) -> "item-1"

Every value in Sass is treated as a list one-element list. Strings, numbers, boolean, whatever you can put in a variable. This means you’re fine to use some list functions even on things that don’t look like one.

$variable: "Sass is awesome";
length($variable) -> 1

Beware! If you remove the quotes around this string, it will be parsed as a 3-items long list (1: Sass; 2: is; 3: awesome). I recommand you quotes your strings to avoid some unpleasant surprises.

Sass list functions

Before getting into the real topic, let’s make a round-up on Sass list functions.

length($list): returns the length of $list.

nth($list, $index): returns the value at $index position in $list (throw an error if index is greater than the list length).

index($list, $value): returns the first index of $value in $list (or null).

append($list, $value[, $separator]): appends $value to the end of $list using $separator as a separator (using the current one if not specified).

join($list-1, $list-2[, $separator]): appends $list-2 to $list-1 using $separator as a separator (using the one from the first list if not specified).

zip(*$lists): combines several list into a comma-separated list where the nth value is a space-separated lists of all source lists nth values. In case source lists are not all the same length, the result list will be the length of the shortest one.

Adding things to Sass lists

This is where things get very interesting. And quite complicated as well. I think the best way to explain this kind of stuff is to use an example. I’ll use the same I talked about in my Sass talk at KiwiParty last month.

Please consider an extended selector like:

.home .nav-home,
.about .nav-about,
.products .nav-products,
.contact .nav-contact {}

…based on a list of keywords $pages: ('home', 'about', 'products', 'contact'). I found 3 ways to generate this selector based on the list; we’ll see them one by one.

But first, we will write the skeleton of our testcase:

$pages: ('home', 'about', 'products', 'contact');
$selector: ();

@each $item in $pages {
  /* We create `$selector` */

#{$selector} {
  style: awesome;

The long and dirty way

This is the method I was still using a couple of weeks ago. It works but it involves an extra conditional statement to handle commas (also it’s ugly). Please see below.

@each $item in $pages {
  $selector: $selector unquote('.#{$item} .nav-#{$item}');
  // Add comma if not dealing with the last item of list
  @if $item != nth($pages, length($pages)) {
    $selector: $selector unquote(',');

Basically, we add the new selector to $selector and if we are not dealing with the last item of the list, we add a comma.

Note: we have to use unquote('') to treat our new selector as an unquoted string.

The clean way

This one is the cleanest way you can use between the three; not the shortest though. Anyway, it uses append(..) properly.

@each $item in $pages {
  $selector: append($selector, unquote('.#{$item} .nav-#{$item}'), 'comma');

I think this is pretty straightforward: we append to $selector the new selector by explicitly separating it from the previous one with a comma.

The implicit way

Probably my favorite version above all since it’s the shortest. It relies on implicit appending; very neat. so I highly recommend you to use the append(..) way.

@each $item in $pages {
  $selector: $selector, unquote('.#{$item} .nav-#{$item}');

Instead of using append(..) and setting the 3rd parameter to comma we implicitly do it via removing the function and using a comma right after $selector.

Final words

Having a very permissive syntax can be complicated.

The three versions we saw in the previous section work like a charm, the one you should use is really up to you although the one with append(..) is definitely the cleaner way of handling this. You can also do it in some other more complicated and dirty ways.

Anyway, this shows why having a very permissive syntax can be complicated. As I said at the beginning of this post, you can do pretty much whatever you want and if you want my opinion this isn’t for the best.