How can I constrain a <ul>'s width to the width of the widest item?

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Given the following markup:

<ul>
   <li>apple</li>
   <li class="highlight">orange</li>
   <li>pear</li>
</ul>

Both the uls and the lis widths appear to be 100%. If I apply a background-color to the list item, the highlight stretches the full width of the page.

I only want the background highlight to stretch as wide as the widest item (with maybe some padding). How do I constrain the lis (or perhaps the uls) width to the width of the widest item?

Adding ul {float: left; } style will force your list into preferred width, which is what you want.

Problem is, you should make sure next element goes below the list, as it did before. Clearing should take care of that.

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Can you do it like this?

<ul>
   <li>apple</li>
   <li><span class="highlight">orange</span></li>
   <li>pear</li>
</ul>

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Exactly as BoltBait said, wrap your text in an inline element, such as span and give that the class.

<ul>
    <li>apple</li>
    <li><span class="highlight">orange</span></li>
    <li>pear</li>
</ul>

My extra 2 cents is that if you don't have access to change the HTML, you can do it using Javascript. In jQuery:

$('li.highlight').wrapInner("<span></span>");

and use the CSS:

li.highlight span { background-color: #f0f; }

edit: after re-reading your question, can you clarify: do you want the highlight to only go as wide as the element which is highlighted, or as wide as the widest element in the list? eg:

    - short
    - items ********************
    - here
    - and then a really long one

...where the asterisks represent the highlighting. If so, then buti-oxa's answer is the easiest way. just be careful with clearing your floats.

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The <ul> element has display: block; as its default display property, causing the width to fill 100% of its container.

To change this aspect and still retain all the other default properties of how a <ul> is displayed (e.g. avoid issues with float from other answers), apply display: inline-block; to the list:

ul {
    display: inline-block;
    background-color: green;
}
.highlight {
    background-color: orange; /* for demonstration */
    padding: 15px; /* for demonstration */
}
<ul>
   <li>apple</li>
   <li class="highlight">orange</li>
   <li>pear</li>
   <li>banana</li>
</ul>

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Adding style="float: left;" to ul will cause the ul to only stretch as wide as the widest item. However, the next element will be placed to the right of it. Adding style="clear: left;" to the next element will place the next element after the ul.

Try it out

See documentation on float and clear.

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Comments
  • Is there any reason you can't give the list a specified width?
  • I want to avoid unnecessarily wrapping long list items.
  • any way then to center this list?
  • See stackoverflow.com/questions/1708054/center-ul-li-into-div for how to do that, but you should avoid float as the solution here anyway, even circa '08 or '11.