Recent versions of Lift (2.2-M1 and later) provide a concise way of expressing XML transformations using a CSS-like syntax called CSS Selector Transforms. The pleasant conciseness comes with a number of unexpected/undocumented behaviors and corner-cases. One which recently caught me by surprise is the handling of attributes on XML elements. This post is a brief discussion of the behavior and how to work around it to remove attributes from elements.

Attribute Merging

Although I can not find any reference to attribute merging in the documentation, it has been discussed on the mailing list. The basic idea is that when an element is transformed, any attributes from the original element are copied to the replacement element, except where the replacement element contains an attribute with the same name (except when that attribute is “class”, in which case they are merged). This simplifies the common case, where attributes should be retained, while making the uncommon case significantly more complex.

Example Transformations

For all of the following examples, suppose we have the following HTML stored in a variable named html:

<p id="notice1" class="admonition important">Be careful with CSS Selector Transforms!</p>

First, as an example of attribute merging, suppose we wanted to replace the element with another using the following code:

("#notice1" #> <p id="notice2" class="alert">Breaking News:  CSS Selectors!</p>)(html)

This would produce:

<p id="notice2" class="alert admonition important">Breaking News:  CSS Selectors!</p>

Notice that the id attribute has been replaced while the class attribute has been merged. With this in mind, it should be obvious why the following code does not work:

// WARNING:  Does nothing!
("#notice1" #> { n =>
  val e = n.asInstanceOf[Elem];
  e.copy(attributes = e.attributes.remove("class"))

Although the element returned by the transformation function doesn’t have a class attribute, attribute merging will add the class attribute from the original element causing the above transformation to have no effect (except possibly changing the attribute order).

The correct way to modify attributes is by matching against the attribute (a Lift addition to the CSS syntax) as follows:

("#notice1 [id]" #> (None: Option[String]))(html)

This would (as expected) result in:

<p class="admonition important">Breaking News:  CSS Selectors!</p>

Although, interestingly, replacing None with Nil will result in an empty id attribute. I haven’t fully investigated this behavior, although part of the explanation is that None is implicitly converted to net.liftweb.util.IterableConst while Nil is implicitly converted to scala.xml.NodeSeq.

In 2.4-M4, there is even an addition to the syntax to allow removing a space-separated word from an attribute:

("#notice1 [class!]" #> "important")(html)

Which would result in:

<p id="notice1" class="admonition">Breaking News:  CSS Selectors!</p>

Neat, huh?

Another Gotcha

Not so fast! There’s an annoying bug which prevents this from working when combined with other CSS Selector Transforms either as child transforms (as appears in the bug report) or when combined. So if we add an identity transformation function to the previous transformation as follows:

// WARNING:  Does nothing!
("#notice1" #> { n => n } & "#notice1 [class!]" #> "important")(html)

The output is the same as the input (again, ignoring any attribute ordering). After a bit of digging, I found that if the attribute-modifying transforms are chained rather than combined they behave as expected. So the previous (non-functional) transformation can be changed to:

("#notice1" #> { n => n } andThen "#notice1 [class!]" #> "important")(html)

Which does behave as expected.

Disabling Attribute Merging

In Lift 2.5-M1 and later there is an addition to the CSS Selector Transform syntax which disables attribute merging. Appending "!!" to the outermost selector will disable attribute merging, which allows our original example (or any other nested selectors) to modify attributes at will:

// WARNING:  Won't compile in 2.5-M1 or later
("#notice1 !!" #> { n => n } & "#notice1 [class!]" #> "important")(html)

Whoops! That doesn’t work, for 2 reasons. First, n needs a declared type. Second, the design of the new CSS Type Classes in 2.5 mean that the html parameter is interpreted as the implicit ComputeTransformRules parameter of the #> method of ToCssBindPromoter rather than the parameter of the apply method of CssSel. These problems can be fixed as follows:

// Works in 2.5-M1 and later
("#notice1 !!" #> { n: NodeSeq => n } & "#notice1 [class!]" #> "important").apply(html)

However, this syntax does not work if all of the classes are removed:

// WARNING:  Doesn't work in 2.5-M1 (won't remove either class)
("#notice1 !!" #> { n: NodeSeq => n } & "#notice1 [class!]" #> List("admonition", "important")).apply(html)

// WARNING:  Also doesn't work (for the same reason)
("#notice1 !!" #> { n: NodeSeq =>
  val e = n.asInstanceOf[Elem];
  e.copy(attributes = e.attributes.remove("class"))

Article Changes


  • Added “Disabling Attribute Merging” section with information about Lift 2.5-M1 and later.


  • Added note that removing all classes does not work with the "!!" syntax.