Tables are an important part of many websites. They are the best way to display data that reads best in columns. Examples of this kind of data might be the numbers for a company’s balance sheet, a list of files with their descriptions and release dates, a book list showing titles and authors, or an address list.
In this tutorial, I’ll first show you how to create data tables by hand, using HTML and CSS, (I’ll leave out Sass for now), and then I’ll discuss some plugins that will make the task much easier.
You define a table and include all of its elements between the “table” tag and its corresponding “/table” end tag. Table elements, including data items, row and column headers, and captions, each have their own markup tags. Working from left to right and top to bottom, you define, in order, the header and data for each column cell across and down the table.
Tables are treated by most browsers as a separate browser window within your page. A table can contain almost any type of HTML tag that holds content such as paragraphs, forms, images, links, scripted applets, and even other tables. Tables can be quite simple or quite complex, depending on your needs.
Tags for Tables
When making tables, you’ll use five tags. There are more tags if you want to get fancy with layouts, but the ones we’ll cover are the tags you’ll use in almost every table you create.
The Table Tag
The table tag is the way you begin every table. It tells the browser that everything you do until you close the table tag is going to be part of a table.
The “table” tag and its “/table” end tag define and encapsulate a table within the body of your document. Unless otherwise placed within the browser window by style sheet, paragraph, division-level, or other alignment options, the browser stops the current text flow, breaks the line, inserts the table beginning on a new line, and then restarts the text flow on a new line below the table.
The only content allowed directly within the “table” tag is one or more “tr” tags, which define each row of table contents, along with the various table sectioning tags: “thead”, “tfoot”, “tbody”, “col”, and “colgroup”.
The “table” tag has several optional attributes as well as many CSS properties that can be used. Some of the optional attributes are being replaced with CSS. You may want to Google these or read a book like CSS The Missing Manual to learn how they all work. We’ll focus on those used most often.
For now, optional attributes include border, cellspacing, cellpadding, background (bgcolor), bordercolor (bordercolordark), (bordercolorlight), class, cols, dir, height (hspace), (), id, lang, nowrap, rules, style, summary, title, valign (vspace), and width. There are also around a dozen mouse and key click events that you can explore if you intend to use scripting in your tables.
Preparing The Ground
Because we’re doing this using WordPress, you’ll need to add any CSS rules to your theme’s stylesheet. If your theme already has styling for tables, you can either modify those styles, or leave them as is. If not, you’ll need to go ahead and add those rules to your stylesheet. If you’re using a Genesis theme, (that’s an affiliate link, so if you click it, and make a purchase, I get a commission),there’s already a structure in place, including a table of contents documenting all the styles that are provided for the theme. You may wish to add an entry in the contents for the tables section. That way, you’ll be able to more easily find that section should you want to make future changes to your table styling. Next, add any style rules for tables. Make sure you add them before the media queries.
In HTML 5, it is best to specify both the background and other colors using CSS with either a tag selector for all tables or by assigning your table a class and setting colors that way. It saves you time, and the color attributes for the table tag will be going away in a few years.
Aligning Your Table
Like images, tables are rectangular objects that float in the browser display, aligned according to the current text flow. Normally, the browser left-justifies a table, abutting its left edge to the left margin of the display window. Or the table may be centered if under the influence of a centered paragraph or a centered division. Unlike images, however, tables are not inline objects. Text content normally flows above and below a table, not beside it. You can change that display behavior with a CSS definition for the “table” tag using the align property.
The align attribute accepts a value of either left , right , or center , indicating that the table should be placed flush against the left or right margin of the text flow, with the text flowing around the table, or in the middle with text flowing above and below.
Borders can and should be handled using CSS. However, if you must use this attribute in your table code, here is how it works. The optional border attribute for the “table” tag tells the browser to draw lines around the table and the rows and cells within it. The default is no borders at all. You may specify a value for border , but you don’t have to with HTML. Alone, the attribute simply enables borders and a set of default characteristics, slightly different for each of the popular browsers.) With XHTML, use border=”border” to achieve the same default results. Otherwise, in HTML 5, supply an integer value for border equal to the pixel width of the 3D chiseled-edge lines that surround the outside of the table and make it look like it’s embossed onto the page.
Cellspacing and Cellpadding
Both cellspacing and cellpadding can be handled nicely in CSS and will save you time. Use a tag or class selector, and you’re golden. However, if you want to use the attributes in your “table” tag, here’s what you need to know.
The Cellspacing Attribute
The cellspacing attribute controls the amount of space placed between adjacent cells in a table and along the outer edges of cells along the edges of a table.
Most browsers normally put 2 pixels of space between cells and along the outer edges of the table. If you include a border attribute in the “table” tag, the cell spacing between interior cells grows by 2 more pixels (4 total) to make space for the chiseled edge on the interior border. The outer edges of edge cells grow by the value of the border attribute.
By including the cellspacing attribute, you can widen or reduce the interior cell borders. For instance, to make the thinnest possible interior cell borders, include the border and cellspacing=0 attributes in the table’s tag.
The Cellpadding Attribute
The cellpadding attribute controls the amount of space between the edge of a cell and its contents, which by default is 1 pixel. You can make all the cell contents in a table touch their respective cell borders by including cellpadding=0 in the table tag. You can also increase the cellpadding space by making its value greater than 1.
Combining the Border, Cellspacing, and Cellpadding Attributes
The interactions between the border , cellpadding , and cellspacing attributes of the “table” tag combine in ways that can be confusing. You will need to experiment a bit to understand how these attributes work together.
While all kinds of combinations of the border and cellspacing attributes are possible, these are the most common:
The Cols Attribute
Setting this attribute can make your web pages load faster and assist with screenreader navigation in large tables. Always use this attribute if you can. To format a table, your browser has to read the entire table contents, determining the number and width of each column in the table. This can be a lengthy process for long tables, forcing users to wait to see your pages. The cols attribute tells the browser, in advance, how many columns to expect in the table. This applies to the virtual buffer used by most screenreaders as well. The value of this attribute is a number, an integer value defining the number of columns in the table.
The cols attribute only advises the browser. If you define a different number of columns, the browser is free to ignore the cols attribute in order to render the table correctly. In general, it is good form to include this attribute with your “table” tag to help the browser do a faster job of formatting your tables.
The Summary Attribute
The summary attribute was introduced to HTML in the 4.0 standard. Its value is a quote-enclosed string that describes the purpose and summarizes the contents of the table. Its intended use, according to the standard, is to provide extended access to nonvisual browsers, particularly for users with disabilities.
The TR Tag
The “tr” tag defines rows in your table. Every row in a table has the same number of cells as the longest row; the browser automatically creates empty cells to pad rows with fewer defined cells. In early versions of HTML, closing the “tr” and “td” tags wasn’t necessary. Most browsers will still display your table if you don’t do this. However, for best compatibility with all browsers, close each row with the “/tr> tag.
Use CSS if you need to style rows in your tables including colors, alignment, and such. If you define classes for rows that need formatting, you won’t have to type a bunch of attributes every time you make a new row.
The “TR” tag will hold either the “td” tag or the “th” tag to make cells. Don’t put data immediately inside a “tr” tag without first adding a “td” or “th” tag first.
The th and td Tags
The “th” and “td” tags go inside the “tr” tags of a table to create the header and data cells, respectively, and to define the cell contents within the rows. These tags make the columns in your table. The tags operate similarly. The only differences are that the browsers render header text, (meant to entitle or otherwise describe table data), in boldface font style and that the default alignment of their respective contents might be different than for data. Data usually gets left-justified by default while headers get centered.
The contents of the “th” and “td” tags can be anything you might put in the body of a document, including text, images, forms, applets… even another table. Browsers automatically create a table large enough, both vertically and horizontally, to display all the contents of any and all the cells.
If a row has fewer header or data items than other rows, the browser adds empty cells at the end to fill the row. If you need to make an empty cell before the end of a row, for instance to indicate a missing data point, create a header or data cell with no content in it.
if the table has borders, empty cells look different than those containing data or headers. The empty cell does not appear embossed onto the window and is simply left blank. If you want to create an empty cell that has borders like all the other cells in your table, use a minimal amount of content in the cell: something like a single “br” tag, for example.
You can use CSS to control the appearance of cells using the “td” tag selector or by giving certain cells a class that contains a style.
The Ccaption Tag
A table often needs a caption to explain its contents, so browsers provide a table-caption tag. Authors typically place the “caption” tag and its contents immediately after the “table” tag, but it can be placed nearly anywhere inside the table and between the row tags. The caption may contain any body content, much like a cell within a table. Screenreaders do read the caption, and it can be helpful to blind and sighted users alike. Unlike the summary attribute, the contents of the caption tag always show visually on screen.
This is a time vampire! Can’t I use a plugin?
One of the great things about WordPress, (or any CMS for that matter), is that it does the heavy lifting for you. And when you’re writing content, and you want to display data in a table, allowing WordPress to handle the creation of that table with a plugin is a lot less time-consuming than switching to the code editor and manually creating it yourself. So if you’ve read this far, here are some plugins that will help.
Ultimate Tables is a free WordPress plugin that allows you to insert tables into posts, pages, and other custom post types.
Six different styles are available with the plugin. Alternatively, you can define your own class or apply no styling to the table. Tables are configured in the settings area. From here you can define rows and columns, and enter text or HTML into cells. Rows and columns can be reordered by defining their row or column number at the side of the table.
The output of Ultimate Tables looks great. Additional rows of data can be broken up into pages.
Ultimate Tables supports search, filtering, and sorting. Once you have completed your table, you can insert it into your website using a shortcode. The table can also be placed in a widget.
TablePress, (formerly known as WP Tables Reloaded), is easy to use and offers more custom options than does Ultimate Tables. In the settings area, you define the table name, description, number of rows, and number of columns. It supports any type of data in cells (even formulas). Rows and columns can be moved, inserted, and duplicated. Cells can also be selected and combined into larger cells. One of the great features of the plugin is the ability to select a cell and then add content using an advanced editor. This allows you to style content and insert images. Table headers and footers can be added too. There is also an option for alternating row colors and enabling row hover highlighting. TablePress features search and sorting functionality and table rows can be divided into pages. Custom CSS can be added via the plugin options page and then called in the settings area for individual tables. However, if you don’t want to add your own CSS, the default design will work as well. With the ability to import and export data using CSV, HTML, and JSON, it is a practical option for anyone who works with data tables on a regular basis.
These recommendations should get you started. If you’d like more options, Elegant Themes has compiled a list of WordPress table plugins ranging from simple to advanced, and from free to premium.
I hope you have found this tutorial useful. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments. While you’re at it, if you have a favorite table plugin, why not leave it in the comments and I’ll add it to this post.