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display: inline; is a display mode to use in a sentence. For instance, if you have a paragraph and want to highlight a single word you do:

<p>
    Pellentesque habitant morbi <em>tristique</em> senectus
    et netus et malesuada fames ac turpis egestas.
</p>

The <em> element has a display: inline; by default, because this tag is always used in a sentence. The <p> element has a display: block; by default, because it's neither a sentence nor in a sentence, it's a block of sentences.

An element with display: inline; cannot have a height or a width or a vertical margin. An element with display: block; can have a width, height and margin.
If you want to add a height to the <em> element, you need to set this element to display: inline-block;. Now you can add a height to the element and every other block style (the block part of inline-block), but it is placed in a sentence (the inline part of inline-block).

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