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Zach Leatherman

CSS 3 Text: A Tale of writing-mode Woe

12 February 2010Read this in about 4 minutes.

After reading an interesting article on using the writing-mode CSS property to display vertical text (I’m always interested in how to abuse what browsers currently support into something new and exciting), I decided to look into this writing-mode property and see what opportunities it might present.

Generally when exploring a development opportunity, I tend to prioritize my adventures towards things that are supported in Internet Explorer first. This often has the biggest cross-browser payoff, since the other browser vendors tend to have a quicker draw than the Microsoft Team. However, surprisingly enough, this writing-mode study proved the opposite to be true. It seems very interesting that Microsoft has decided to implement a portion of the CSS 3 specification, given its general stance of moving slower than an iceberg to avoid “breaking the web.” But I, for one, welcome our new choose-your-own-adventure standards loving overlords.

As far as my tests go, the only browser to support the writing-mode property at all is Internet Explorer, which was very surprising. At it’s heart, though, writing-mode is just shorthand for two other properties: direction and block-progression. Luckily, Firefox, Safari, Chrome and IE back through at least version 6 support the direction property and have proprietary options for rotation, which allows for emulation of a few of the unsupported writing-mode‘s, but not all of them. The missing piece of writing-mode emulation belongs to the block-progression property, which isn’t supported by anyone, and would allow elements to flow reverse vertically (start at the bottom of a block and flow upwards).

It’s important to note that while IE8 has really set the bar for implementation here and has chosen to support writing-mode: lr-bt and writing-mode: rl-bt, they aren’t used to display any known language text. They’re just included for completeness, and aren’t a part of the W3C CSS 3 Text Module specification.

View the Demo / Test Page

Compatibility Table

writing-mode Internet Explorer
Mozilla Firefox
Apple Safari
Google Chrome
6 7 8 3.6 4 4
lr-tb yes yes yes yes yes yes
rl-tb emulatable yes yes emulatable emulatable emulatable
lr-bt no no yes no no no
rl-bt no no yes no no no
tb-lr no no yes no no no
tb-rl yes yes yes emulatable emulatable emulatable
bt-lr no no yes no no no
bt-rl emulatable yes yes emulatable emulatable emulatable

CSS Code for Emulation

Writing Mode: lr-tb

// Do nothing, this is the default

Writing Mode: rl-tb

direction: rtl;

Writing Mode: lr-bt

// Not possible using W3C spec

Writing Mode: rl-bt

// Not possible using W3C spec

Writing Mode: tb-lr

// Not possible using W3C spec

Writing Mode: tb-rl

-webkit-transform: rotate(90deg);
-moz-transform: rotate(90deg);
filter: progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.BasicImage(rotation=1);

Writing Mode: bt-lr

// Not possible using W3C spec

Writing Mode: bt-rl

direction: rtl;
-webkit-transform: rotate(90deg);
-moz-transform: rotate(90deg);
filter: progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.BasicImage(rotation=1);


Given that 4 of the 6 known writing modes are available or available through CSS emulation means we’re in pretty good shape on the internationalization front. Consulting the Microsoft provided table for common use cases, we’re only in trouble when trying to use the “Mongolian script writing system” and an “Arabic script block quote embedded in Mongolian script document.”

In some far fetched fantasy-world legacy application where a page may use tables for layout, I could see an application team possibly using the direction property to redistribute the tables for a print stylesheet. But that certainly wouldn’t be a common use case, since using CSS for layouts is going to give you much more flexibility in that regard. If you can think of any other off the wall uses for writing-mode or direction, I’d love to hear them!


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Zach Leatherman is a Professional Front End Engineer. He loves building for the web and has been writing here since 2007.

He enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife Traci and their two Great Danes, Roxie and Ella. They also have a cat, a rabbit, goldfish, and usually one or more tarantulas. Read more »