What Is the Difference Between HTML Tags <div> and <span>?

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The <div> and <span> elements are two really popular ones in HTML. Generic building blocks without any meanings.

If we want to build a better and more accessible site or app we need to use the semantically correct elements for each section/block. With HTML5 we got a lot of new tags which is a blessing, but life isn’t this simple.

The web is more complicated each day, and we need meaningless elements for building results as we want. The <div> and <span> elements are like the most generic Lego building blocks; we need them but nothing more.

What is the Difference?

The <div> element is a block-based element which fills the space horizontally (brake the line before and after it) and mostly used for grouping other items.

The <span> element is an inline item which is used in other inline things (usually text) to mark a specific section.

Of course, we can modify both display property, but mostly, we use the default values by convention.

When to Use Them?

If you have to build a non-semantic section – like a layout or something which you want to target with JS code by a class or id – you have to use them.

If your project has some grid framework you have to use a lot of <div> element for build desired structure, and this is alright. The one thing which is essential here that you also have to use correctly the fundamental layout elements like <header>, <footer>, <main>, <aside> if you want a more accessible layout.

<div class="container">
    <div class="row">
        <main class="col-12 col-md-8">
            Your main content...
        </main>
        <aside class="col-12 col-md-4">
            Your sidebar content...
        </aside>
    </div>
</div>

Combining semantic and non-semantic elements is the base of HTML, and it is a good point if you have fewer tags, but sometimes we can’t avoid the bloat.

While <div> is for mostly layout structure <span> is mostly for text related elements and other smaller stuff. The rule here is the same: only use <span> if you don’t need semantic code; like when you want to target some inline element from JavaScript, or you want to add a caret next to a dropdown.

<p>This is a <strong>highlighted text</strong> which has meaning.</p>
<p>This is a <span class="bold">highlighted text</span> which hasn't meaning.</p>

Don’t use span to make generic text formatting like bold or emphasize use <strong> and <em> tag; these tags have meaning.

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