Structural directives

Domains: Angular

What are structural directives?

Structural directives are responsible for HTML layout. They shape or reshape the DOM's structure, typically by adding, removing, or manipulating elements.

As with other directives, you apply a structural directive to a host element. The directive then does whatever it's supposed to do with that host element and its descendants.

Structural directives are easy to recognize. An asterisk (*) precedes the directive attribute name as in this example.

src/app/app.component.html (ngif)

<div *ngIf="hero" class="name">{{}}</div>

No brackets. No parentheses. Just *ngIf set to a string.

You'll learn in this guide that the asterisk (*) is a convenience notation and the string is a microsyntax rather than the usual template expression. Angular desugars this notation into a marked-up <ng-template> that surrounds the host element and its descendents. Each structural directive does something different with that template.

Three of the common, built-in structural directives—NgIf, NgFor, and NgSwitch...—are described in the Template Syntax guide and seen in samples throughout the Angular documentation. Here's an example of them in a template:

src/app/app.component.html (built-in)

<div *ngIf="hero" class="name">{{}}</div>

  <li *ngFor="let hero of heroes">{{}}</li>

<div [ngSwitch]="hero?.emotion">
  <app-happy-hero    *ngSwitchCase="'happy'"    [hero]="hero"></app-happy-hero>
  <app-sad-hero      *ngSwitchCase="'sad'"      [hero]="hero"></app-sad-hero>
  <app-confused-hero *ngSwitchCase="'confused'" [hero]="hero"></app-confused-hero>
  <app-unknown-hero  *ngSwitchDefault           [hero]="hero"></app-unknown-hero>

This guide won't repeat how to use them. But it does explain how they work and how to write your own structural directive.


Throughout this guide, you'll see a directive spelled in both UpperCamelCase and lowerCamelCase. Already you've seen NgIf and ngIf. There's a reason. NgIf refers to the directive class; ngIf refers to the directive's attribute name.

A directive class is spelled in UpperCamelCase (NgIf). A directive's attribute name is spelled in lowerCamelCase (ngIf). The guide refers to the directive class when talking about its properties and what the directive does. The guide refers to the attribute name when describing how you apply the directive to an element in the HTML template.

There are two other kinds of Angular directives, described extensively elsewhere: (1) components and (2) attribute directives.

component manages a region of HTML in the manner of a native HTML element. Technically it's a directive with a template.

An attribute directive changes the appearance or behavior of an element, component, or another directive. For example, the built-in NgStyle directive changes several element styles at the same time.

You can apply many attribute directives to one host element. You can only apply one structural directive to a host element.

NgIf case study

NgIf is the simplest structural directive and the easiest to understand. It takes a boolean expression and makes an entire chunk of the DOM appear or disappear.

src/app/app.component.html (ngif-true)

<p *ngIf="true">
  Expression is true and ngIf is true.
  This paragraph is in the DOM.
<p *ngIf="false">
  Expression is false and ngIf is false.
  This paragraph is not in the DOM.

The ngIf directive doesn't hide elements with CSS. It adds and removes them physically from the DOM. Confirm that fact using browser developer tools to inspect the DOM.

ngIf=false element not in DOM

The top paragraph is in the DOM. The bottom, disused paragraph is not; in its place is a comment about "bindings" (more about that later).

When the condition is false, NgIf removes its host element from the DOM, detaches it from DOM events (the attachments that it made), detaches the component from Angular change detection, and destroys it. The component and DOM nodes can be garbage-collected and free up memory.

Why remove rather than hide?

A directive could hide the unwanted paragraph instead by setting its display style to none.

src/app/app.component.html (display-none)

<p [style.display]="'block'">
  Expression sets display to "block".
  This paragraph is visible.
<p [style.display]="'none'">
  Expression sets display to "none".
  This paragraph is hidden but still in the DOM.

While invisible, the element remains in the DOM.

hidden element still in DOM

The difference between hiding and removing doesn't matter for a simple paragraph. It does matter when the host element is attached to a resource intensive component. Such a component's behavior continues even when hidden. The component stays attached to its DOM element. It keeps listening to events. Angular keeps checking for changes that could affect data bindings. Whatever the component was doing, it keeps doing.

Although invisible, the component—and all of its descendant components—tie up resources. The performance and memory burden can be substantial, responsiveness can degrade, and the user sees nothing.

On the positive side, showing the element again is quick. The component's previous state is preserved and ready to display. The component doesn't re-initialize—an operation that could be expensive. So hiding and showing is sometimes the right thing to do.

But in the absence of a compelling reason to keep them around, your preference should be to remove DOM elements that the user can't see and recover the unused resources with a structural directive like NgIf .

These same considerations apply to every structural directive, whether built-in or custom. Before applying a structural directive, you might want to pause for a moment to consider the consequences of adding and removing elements and of creating and destroying components.

The asterisk (*) prefix

Surely you noticed the asterisk (*) prefix to the directive name and wondered why it is necessary and what it does.

Here is *ngIf displaying the hero's name if hero exists.

src/app/app.component.html (asterisk)

<div *ngIf="hero" class="name">{{}}</div>

The asterisk is "syntactic sugar" for something a bit more complicated. Internally, Angular translates the *ngIf attribute into a <ng-template> element, wrapped around the host element, like this.

src/app/app.component.html (ngif-template)

<ng-template [ngIf]="hero">
  <div class="name">{{}}</div>
  • The *ngIf directive moved to the <ng-template> element where it became a property binding,[ngIf].
  • The rest of the <div>, including its class attribute, moved inside the <ng-template> element.

The first form is not actually rendered, only the finished product ends up in the DOM.

hero div in DOM

Angular consumed the <ng-template> content during its actual rendering and replaced the <ng-template> with a diagnostic comment.

The NgFor and NgSwitch... directives follow the same pattern.

Inside *ngFor

Angular transforms the *ngFor in similar fashion from asterisk (*) syntax to <ng-template> element.

Here's a full-featured application of NgFor, written both ways:

src/app/app.component.html (inside-ngfor)

<div *ngFor="let hero of heroes; let i=index; let odd=odd; trackBy: trackById" [class.odd]="odd">
  ({{i}}) {{}}

<ng-template ngFor let-hero [ngForOf]="heroes" let-i="index" let-odd="odd" [ngForTrackBy]="trackById">
  <div [class.odd]="odd">({{i}}) {{}}</div>

This is manifestly more complicated than ngIf and rightly so. The NgFor directive has more features, both required and optional, than the NgIf shown in this guide. At minimum NgFor needs a looping variable (let hero) and a list (heroes).

You enable these features in the string assigned to ngFor, which you write in Angular's microsyntax.

Everything outside the ngFor string stays with the host element (the <div>) as it moves inside the <ng-template>. In this example, the [ngClass]="odd" stays on the <div>.


The Angular microsyntax lets you configure a directive in a compact, friendly string. The microsyntax parser translates that string into attributes on the <ng-template>:

  • The let keyword declares a template input variable that you reference within the template. The input variables in this example are heroi, and odd. The parser translates let herolet i, and let odd into variables named let-herolet-i, and let-odd.

  • The microsyntax parser title-cases all directives and prefixes them with the directive's attribute name, such as ngFor. For example, the ngFor input properties, of and trackBy, become ngForOf and ngForTrackBy, respectively. That's how the directive learns that the list is heroes and the track-by function is trackById.

  • As the NgFor directive loops through the list, it sets and resets properties of its own context object. These properties can include, but aren't limited to, indexodd, and a special property named $implicit.

  • The let-i and let-odd variables were defined as let i=index and let odd=odd. Angular sets them to the current value of the context's index and odd properties.

  • The context property for let-hero wasn't specified. Its intended source is implicit. Angular sets let-hero to the value of the context's $implicit property, which NgFor has initialized with the hero for the current iteration.

  • The NgFor API guide describes additional NgFor directive properties and context properties.

  • The NgForOf directive implements NgFor. Read more about additional NgForOf directive properties and context properties in the NgForOf API reference.

Writing your own structural directives

These microsyntax mechanisms are also available to you when you write your own structural directives. For example, microsyntax in Angular allows you to write <div *ngFor="let item of items">{{item}}</div> instead of <ng-template ngFor let-item [ngForOf]="items"><div>{{item}}</div></ng-template>. The following sections provide detailed information on constraints, grammar, and translation of microsyntax.


Microsyntax must meet the following requirements:

  • It must be known ahead of time so that IDEs can parse it without knowing the underlying semantics of the directive or what directives are present.
  • It must translate to key-value attributes in the DOM.


When you write your own structural directives, use the following grammar:

*:prefix="( :let | :expression ) (';' | ',')? ( :let | :as | :keyExp )*"

The following tables describe each portion of the microsyntax grammar.

prefix HTML attribute key
key HTML attribute key
local local variable name used in the template
export value exported by the directive under a given name
expression standard Angular expression
keyExp = :key ":"? :expression ("as" :local)? ";"?
let = "let" :local "=" :export ";"?
as = :export "as" :local ";"?


A microsyntax is translated to the normal binding syntax as follows:

Microsyntax Translation
prefix and naked expression [prefix]="expression"
keyExp [prefixKey] "expression" (let-prefixKey="export")
Notice that the prefix is added to the key
let let-local="export"

Microsyntax examples

The following table demonstrates how Angular desugars microsyntax.

Microsyntax Desugared
*ngFor="let item of [1,2,3]" <ng-template ngFor let-item [ngForOf]="[1,2,3]">
*ngFor="let item of [1,2,3] as items; trackBy: myTrack; index as i" <ng-template ngFor let-item [ngForOf]="[1,2,3]" let-items="ngForOf" [ngForTrackBy]="myTrack" let-i="index">
*ngIf="exp" <ng-template [ngIf]="exp">
*ngIf="exp as value" <ng-template [ngIf]="exp" let-value="ngIf">

Studying the source code for NgIf and NgForOf is a great way to learn more.

Template input variable

A template input variable is a variable whose value you can reference within a single instance of the template. There are several such variables in this example: heroi, and odd. All are preceded by the keyword let.

A template input variable is not the same as a template reference variable, neither semantically nor syntactically.

You declare a template input variable using the let keyword (let hero). The variable's scope is limited to a single instance of the repeated template. You can use the same variable name again in the definition of other structural directives.

You declare a template reference variable by prefixing the variable name with # (#var). A reference variable refers to its attached element, component or directive. It can be accessed anywhere in the entire template.

Template input and reference variable names have their own namespaces. The hero in let hero is never the same variable as the hero declared as #hero.

One structural directive per host element

Someday you'll want to repeat a block of HTML but only when a particular condition is true. You'll try to put both an *ngFor and an *ngIf on the same host element. Angular won't let you. You may apply only one structural directive to an element.

The reason is simplicity. Structural directives can do complex things with the host element and its descendents. When two directives lay claim to the same host element, which one takes precedence? Which should go first, the NgIf or the NgFor? Can the NgIf cancel the effect of the NgFor? If so (and it seems like it should be so), how should Angular generalize the ability to cancel for other structural directives?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Prohibiting multiple structural directives makes them moot. There's an easy solution for this use case: put the *ngIf on a container element that wraps the *ngFor element. One or both elements can be an ng-container so you don't have to introduce extra levels of HTML.

Inside NgSwitch directives

The Angular NgSwitch is actually a set of cooperating directives: NgSwitchNgSwitchCase, and NgSwitchDefault.

Here's an example.

src/app/app.component.html (ngswitch)

<div [ngSwitch]="hero?.emotion">
  <app-happy-hero    *ngSwitchCase="'happy'"    [hero]="hero"></app-happy-hero>
  <app-sad-hero      *ngSwitchCase="'sad'"      [hero]="hero"></app-sad-hero>
  <app-confused-hero *ngSwitchCase="'confused'" [hero]="hero"></app-confused-hero>
  <app-unknown-hero  *ngSwitchDefault           [hero]="hero"></app-unknown-hero>

The switch value assigned to NgSwitch (hero.emotion) determines which (if any) of the switch cases are displayed.

NgSwitch itself is not a structural directive. It's an attribute directive that controls the behavior of the other two switch directives. That's why you write [ngSwitch], never *ngSwitch.

NgSwitchCase and NgSwitchDefault are structural directives. You attach them to elements using the asterisk (*) prefix notation. An NgSwitchCase displays its host element when its value matches the switch value. The NgSwitchDefault displays its host element when no sibling NgSwitchCase matches the switch value.

The element to which you apply a directive is its host element. The <happy-hero> is the host element for the happy *ngSwitchCase. The <unknown-hero> is the host element for the *ngSwitchDefault.

As with other structural directives, the NgSwitchCase and NgSwitchDefault can be desugared into the <ng-template> element form.

src/app/app.component.html (ngswitch-template)

<div [ngSwitch]="hero?.emotion">
  <ng-template [ngSwitchCase]="'happy'">
    <app-happy-hero [hero]="hero"></app-happy-hero>
  <ng-template [ngSwitchCase]="'sad'">
    <app-sad-hero [hero]="hero"></app-sad-hero>
  <ng-template [ngSwitchCase]="'confused'">
    <app-confused-hero [hero]="hero"></app-confused-hero>
  </ng-template >
  <ng-template ngSwitchDefault>
    <app-unknown-hero [hero]="hero"></app-unknown-hero>

Prefer the asterisk (*) syntax.

The asterisk (*) syntax is more clear than the desugared form. Use <ng-container> when there's no single element to host the directive.

While there's rarely a good reason to apply a structural directive in template attribute or element form, it's still important to know that Angular creates a <ng-template> and to understand how it works. You'll refer to the <ng-template> when you write your own structural directive.

The <ng-template>

The <ng-template> is an Angular element for rendering HTML. It is never displayed directly. In fact, before rendering the view, Angular replaces the <ng-template> and its contents with a comment.

If there is no structural directive and you merely wrap some elements in a <ng-template>, those elements disappear. That's the fate of the middle "Hip!" in the phrase "Hip! Hip! Hooray!".

src/app/app.component.html (template-tag)


Angular erases the middle "Hip!", leaving the cheer a bit less enthusiastic.

template tag rendering

A structural directive puts a <ng-template> to work as you'll see when you write your own structural directive.

Group sibling elements with <ng-container>

There's often a root element that can and should host the structural directive. The list element (<li>) is a typical host element of an NgFor repeater.

src/app/app.component.html (ngfor-li)

<li *ngFor="let hero of heroes">{{}}</li>

When there isn't a host element, you can usually wrap the content in a native HTML container element, such as a <div>, and attach the directive to that wrapper.

src/app/app.component.html (ngif)

<div *ngIf="hero" class="name">{{}}</div>

Introducing another container element—typically a <span> or <div>—to group the elements under a single root is usually harmless. Usually ... but not always.

The grouping element may break the template appearance because CSS styles neither expect nor accommodate the new layout. For example, suppose you have the following paragraph layout.

src/app/app.component.html (ngif-span)

  I turned the corner
  <span *ngIf="hero">
    and saw {{}}. I waved
  and continued on my way.

You also have a CSS style rule that happens to apply to a <span> within a <p>aragraph.

src/app/app.component.css (p-span)

p span { color: red; font-size: 70%; }

The constructed paragraph renders strangely.

spanned paragraph with bad style

The p span style, intended for use elsewhere, was inadvertently applied here.

Another problem: some HTML elements require all immediate children to be of a specific type. For example, the <select> element requires <option> children. You can't wrap the options in a conditional <div> or a <span>.

When you try this,

src/app/app.component.html (select-span)

  Pick your favorite hero
  (<label><input type="checkbox" checked (change)="showSad = !showSad">show sad</label>)
<select [(ngModel)]="hero">
  <span *ngFor="let h of heroes">
    <span *ngIf="showSad || h.emotion !== 'sad'">
      <option [ngValue]="h">{{}} ({{h.emotion}})</option>

the drop down is empty.

spanned options don't work

The browser won't display an <option> within a <span>.

<ng-container> to the rescue

The Angular <ng-container> is a grouping element that doesn't interfere with styles or layout because Angular doesn't put it in the DOM.

Here's the conditional paragraph again, this time using <ng-container>.

src/app/app.component.html (ngif-ngcontainer)

  I turned the corner
  <ng-container *ngIf="hero">
    and saw {{}}. I waved
  and continued on my way.

It renders properly.

ngcontainer paragraph with proper style

Now conditionally exclude a select <option> with <ng-container>.

src/app/app.component.html (select-ngcontainer)

  Pick your favorite hero
  (<label><input type="checkbox" checked (change)="showSad = !showSad">show sad</label>)
<select [(ngModel)]="hero">
  <ng-container *ngFor="let h of heroes">
    <ng-container *ngIf="showSad || h.emotion !== 'sad'">
      <option [ngValue]="h">{{}} ({{h.emotion}})</option>

The drop down works properly.

ngcontainer options work properly

Note: Remember that ngModel directive is defined as a part of Angular FormsModule and you need to include FormsModule in the imports: [...] section of the Angular module metadata, in which you want to use it.

The <ng-container> is a syntax element recognized by the Angular parser. It's not a directive, component, class, or interface. It's more like the curly braces in a JavaScript if-block:

if (someCondition) {

Without those braces, JavaScript would only execute the first statement when you intend to conditionally execute all of them as a single block. The <ng-container> satisfies a similar need in Angular templates.

Write a structural directive

In this section, you write an UnlessDirective structural directive that does the opposite of NgIfNgIf displays the template content when the condition is trueUnlessDirective displays the content when the condition is false.

src/app/app.component.html (appUnless-1)

<p *appUnless="condition">Show this sentence unless the condition is true.</p>

Creating a directive is similar to creating a component.

  • Import the Directive decorator (instead of the Component decorator).

  • Import the InputTemplateRef, and ViewContainerRef symbols; you'll need them for any structural directive.

  • Apply the decorator to the directive class.

  • Set the CSS attribute selector that identifies the directive when applied to an element in a template.

Here's how you might begin:

src/app/unless.directive.ts (skeleton)

import { Directive, Input, TemplateRef, ViewContainerRef } from '@angular/core';

@Directive({ selector: '[appUnless]'})
export class UnlessDirective {

The directive's selector is typically the directive's attribute name in square brackets, [appUnless]. The brackets define a CSS attribute selector.

The directive attribute name should be spelled in lowerCamelCase and begin with a prefix. Don't use ng. That prefix belongs to Angular. Pick something short that fits you or your company. In this example, the prefix is app.

The directive class name ends in Directive per the style guide. Angular's own directives do not.

TemplateRef and ViewContainerRef

A simple structural directive like this one creates an embedded view from the Angular-generated <ng-template> and inserts that view in a view container adjacent to the directive's original <p> host element.

You'll acquire the <ng-template> contents with a TemplateRef and access the view container through a ViewContainerRef.

You inject both in the directive constructor as private variables of the class.

src/app/unless.directive.ts (ctor)

  private templateRef: TemplateRef<any>,
  private viewContainer: ViewContainerRef) { }

The appUnless property

The directive consumer expects to bind a true/false condition to [appUnless]. That means the directive needs an appUnless property, decorated with @Input

Read about @Input in the Template Syntax guide.

src/app/unless.directive.ts (set)

@Input() set appUnless(condition: boolean) {
  if (!condition && !this.hasView) {
    this.hasView = true;
  } else if (condition && this.hasView) {
    this.hasView = false;

Angular sets the appUnless property whenever the value of the condition changes. Because the appUnless property does work, it needs a setter.

  • If the condition is falsy and the view hasn't been created previously, tell the view container to create the embedded view from the template.

  • If the condition is truthy and the view is currently displayed, clear the container which also destroys the view.

Nobody reads the appUnless property so it doesn't need a getter.

The completed directive code looks like this:

src/app/unless.directive.ts (excerpt)

import { Directive, Input, TemplateRef, ViewContainerRef } from '@angular/core';

 * Add the template content to the DOM unless the condition is true.
@Directive({ selector: '[appUnless]'})
export class UnlessDirective {
  private hasView = false;

    private templateRef: TemplateRef<any>,
    private viewContainer: ViewContainerRef) { }

  @Input() set appUnless(condition: boolean) {
    if (!condition && !this.hasView) {
      this.hasView = true;
    } else if (condition && this.hasView) {
      this.hasView = false;

Add this directive to the declarations array of the AppModule.

Then create some HTML to try it.

src/app/app.component.html (appUnless)

<p *appUnless="condition" class="unless a">
  (A) This paragraph is displayed because the condition is false.

<p *appUnless="!condition" class="unless b">
  (B) Although the condition is true,
  this paragraph is displayed because appUnless is set to false.

When the condition is falsy, the top (A) paragraph appears and the bottom (B) paragraph disappears. When the condition is truthy, the top (A) paragraph is removed and the bottom (B) paragraph appears.

UnlessDirective in action

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