Frustrating Formatting

If you use Microsoft Word, I guarantee you’ve been frustrated by its formatting, especially if you edit someone else’s documents. For example, you modify the Heading 1 style to use Palatino rather than Arial–but Arial it remains. What’s going on here?

Consider my living room wall, which I daringly painted red. Then, coming to my senses, I painted it grayish green. But wait . . . What *was* I thinking? Finally, I covered it with an almond color that looked okay.

Microsoft Word’s formatting works pretty much the same way. It’s done in layers, like paint on a wall.

The underlying layer is the formatting of paragraph styles. For example, if you apply the Heading 1 paragraph style using Word’s defaults, your text will be formatted in 16-point Arial bold. If you attach a new template to your document (and check the box labeled “Automatically Update Document Styles”), the formatting of Heading 1 will change to whatever is specified in the new template (18-point Baskerville italic, for example). Note that this doesn’t change the style formatting in your Normal template. It just paints over that formatting *in your document.* And if you “detach” the new template, the formatting won’t change back. Once the paint is on there, it’s on there. Of course, you can always attach a *different* template or modify the styles in the document itself if you want to change the formatting yet again.

The next layer up is the formatting of character styles. You can use character styles to format text selections smaller than a paragraph. For example, you might use a character style called Book Title to format book titles in Times Roman italic. Like paragraph styles, character styles can be changed by attaching a different template or modifying the styles in the document itself.

Finally, on the topmost layer, your document could have directly applied formatting. That’s what you get if you simply select some text and apply, say, 18-point Baskerville italic without using a style. In all but the simplest documents, this kind of formatting is of the devil. Why? Because you can’t change it simply by modifying the underlying style–and that means you have no way to control it (or even identify it) *throughout* the document. So, if you modify the Heading 1 style to use Palatino rather than Arial–well, Arial it remains.

How can you avoid this problem in your documents?

1. Don’t use directly applied formatting.

2. Use character styles to format text selections smaller than a paragraph.

3. Use paragraph styles to format everything else.

4. To change your formatting, modify the *style* that produces it.

But what if you’re working on someone else’s documents? You’ll probably want to remove all that directly applied formatting and use styles instead. But that’s a topic for another day.



Rich Shattenberg ( wrote:

“I don’t have a hint but I have a question and a problem. I live in the country of Madagascar. There is no Word spell checker for the Malagasy language, or at least I have not yet been able to find one. I have made a custom dictionary with about 7,000 words to do spell checks in Malagasy. However, here is the challenge.

“The word ‘mandeha’ means ‘to go’ (present tense), ‘Nandeha’ is past tense, and ‘handeha’ is future tense. For the custom dictionary, I have to enter all three words. I have not yet been able to find wildcard symbols to use in the custom dictionary.

“For example, is there a way of telling the custom dictionary to accept the word ‘andeha’ if there is either a ‘m’ or ‘n’ or ‘h’ in front of the word. This would mean I only have to make one entry for the three words.”

I’m researching this, but do you, gentle reader, have an answer (or other questions, hints, or comments you’d like to share)? If so, please send me an email message here: mailto:hints [at symbol]



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