Working with Events, part 1

CSS and JavaScript are different in many ways, almost all of which are too obvious to mention. However, one difference between the two bears explanation, because it is often the cause of confusion and consternation, especially among those who are making the transition from CSS guru to jQuery novice. In fact, it was one of the first things I asked about on the jQuery mailing list back in 2006. Since then, I've seen at least one question on the subject every week, and sometimes as many as one per day—despite an FAQ page and these three plugins to help users deal with it.

How CSS and JavaScript Are Different

So, what's this important difference?

In CSS, style rules are automatically applied to any element that matches the selectors, no matter when those elements are added to the document (DOM).

In JavaScript, event handlers that are registered for elements in the document apply only to those elements that are part of the DOM at the time the event is attached. If we add similar elements to the DOM at a later time, whether through simple DOM manipulation or ajax, CSS will give those elements the same appearance, but JavaScript will not automatically make them act the same way.

For example, let's say we have "<button class="alert">Alert!</button>" in our document, and we want to attach a click handler to it that generates an alert message. In jQuery, we might do so with the following code:

[js]$(document).ready(function() { $('button.alert').click(function() { alert('this is an alert message'); }); });[/js]

Here we are registering the click handler for the button with a class of "alert" as soon as the DOM has loaded. So, the button is there, and we have a click function bound to it. If we add a second <button class="alert"> later on, however, it will know nothing about that click handler. The click event had been dealt with before this second button existed. So, the second button will not generate an alert.

Let's test what we've just discussed. I've added a script with the above three lines of jQuery code so that the following button will produce an alert message when clicked. Try it:

Events Don't Work with Added Elements

Now, let's create a new button (if we don't already have a second one) using jQuery code like this:

[js]$('#create-button').click(function() { if ( $('button.alert').length < 2) { $('
  • plain
  • [/html]

    Press the "I am special" button to create a new list item with a class of "special":

    • plain
    • special
    • plain

    Notice that, like the first special li, the new one has the yellow background. The CSS has come through for us. But press the newly created "I am new" button and, just as with the second alert above, nothing happens. The jQuery code we're using to add the new item says that upon clicking a button inside a list item with a class of "special" (which itself is inside an element with id of "list1") a new list item with class="special" should be inserted after the list item in which the button was clicked:

    [js]$(document).ready(function() { $('#list1 li.special button').click(function() { var $newLi = $('
  • special and new
  • '); $(this).parent().after($newLi); }); });[/js]

    So, how can we get the events to carry over to the new elements? Two common approaches are event delegation and "re-binding" event handlers. In this entry, we'll examine event delegation; in part 2, we'll explore ways to re-bind.

    Event Delegation: Getting Events to Embrace New Elements

    The general idea of event delegation is to bind the event handler to a containing element and then have an action take place based on which specific element within that containing element is targeted. Let's say we have another unordered list: <ul id="list2"> ... </ul>. Instead of attaching the .click() method to a button — $('#list2 li.special button').click(...) — we can attach it to the entire surrounding <ul>. Through the magic of "bubbling," any click on the button is also a click on the button's surrounding list item, the list as a whole, the containing div, and all the way up to the window object. Since the <ul> that gets clicked is the same one each time (we're only creating items within the <ul>), the same thing will happen when clicking on all of the buttons, regardless of when they were created.

    When we use event delegation, we need to pass in the "event" argument. So, in our case, instead of .click(), we'll have .click(event). We don't have to name this argument event. We can call it e or evt or gummy or whatever we want. I just like to use labels that are as obvious as possible because I have a hard time keeping track of things. Here is what we have so far:

    [js]$(document).ready(function() { $('#list2').click(function(event) { var $newLi = $('
  • special and new
  • '); }); });[/js]

    So far, the code is very similar to our first attempt, except for the selector we're starting with (#list2) and the addition of the event argument. Now we need to determine whether what is being clicked inside the <ul> is a "special" button or not. If it is, we can add a new <li class="special">. We check the clicked element by using the "target" property of the event argument:

    [js]$(document).ready(function() { $('#list2').click(function(event) { var $newLi = $('
  • special and new
  • '); var $tgt = $(; if ($'button')) { $tgt.parent().after($newLi); } // next 2 lines show that you've clicked on the ul var bgc = $(this).css('backgroundColor'); $(this).css({backgroundColor: bgc == '#ffcccc' || bgc == 'rgb(255, 204, 204)' ? '#ccccff' : '#ffcccc'}); }); });[/js]

    Line 4 above puts the target element in a jQuery wrapper and stores it in the $tgt variable. Line 5 checks whether the click's target is a button. If it is, the new list item is inserted after the parent of the clicked button. Let's try it:

    • plain
    • special
    • plain

    I put an additional two lines at the end to demonstrate that a click on one of the buttons is still considered a click on the <ul> You'll see that clicking anywhere within the <ul> toggles its background between pink and blue.

    It's probably worth noting that jQuery makes working with the event argument cross-browser friendly. If you do this sort of thing with plain JavaScript and DOM nodes, you'd have to do something like this:

    var list2 = document.getElementById('list2');
    list2.onclick = function(e) {
      var e = e || window.event;
      var tgt = || e.srcElement;
      if (tgt.nodeName.toLowerCase() == 'button') {
        // do something

    As you can see, it's a bit of a hassle.

    Another Huge Benefit of Event Delegation

    Event delegation is also a great way to avoid crippling the user's browser when you're working with a huge document. For example, if you have a table with thousands of cells, and you want something to happen when the user clicks on one, you won't want to attach a click handler to every single one of them (believe me, it can get ugly). Instead, you can attach the click handler to a single table element and use to pinpoint the cell that is being clicked:

    [js]$(document).ready(function() { $('table').click(function(event) { var $thisCell, $tgt = $(; if ($'td')) { $thisCell = $tgt; } else if ($tgt.parents('td').length) { $thisCell = $tgt.parents('td:first'); } // now do something with $thisCell }); });[/js]

    Note that I had to account for the possibility of clicking in a child/descendant of a table cell, but this seems a small inconvenience for the great performance increase that event delegation affords.

    Coming Up Next

    In part 2 of this tutorial, we'll look at how to get events to carry over to newly created elements through careful placement of function calls. We'll also, necessarily, examine unbinding events and using namespaced events. In the meantime, I hope you find part 1 useful. If I've made any mistakes, especially in my terminology, please don't hesitate to point them.

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