Word 2004: Totally irrational behaviour with ‘Space Before’ setting in paragraph styles

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 24th, 2004 • 12:13 am

I can’t believe this. Ever since I upgraded to Word X back in 2002, I have been experiencing a problem with my styles that I thought was due to some kind of corruption. In fact, this problem was the main reason why I decided to rebuild my templates from scratch after installing Office 2004, rather than using my existing Word X templates.

I have just discovered, however, that this problem is not due to some kind of style sheet corruption, but is in fact intended by Microsoft! Indeed, even though I had painstakingly rebuilt all my styles from scratch, I noticed earlier today that the problem was still there. So I did a bit more testing, and the only possible conclusion is that this is a behaviour intended by Microsoft. Argh!

Here is the problem in a nutshell. My default style for body text (called “Body”) has a number of character and paragraph formatting settings, including a setting of “12 pt” for “Space after“. In other words, in the body of my documents, all my paragraphs are formatted with a space after of 12 pt. This is my way of avoiding the use of double paragraph marks (a.k.a. double returns), which are a nightmare in terms of page layout, because you can end up with an empty paragraph at the top of a page, immediately after a page break, and that looks very ugly indeed.

I know full well that the vast majority of Word users continue to use double paragraph marks to create space between paragraphs. But just because the majority of Word users do it, doesn’t mean it’s right. it’s wrong, because it defeats the purpose of the paragraph mark (which is to mark paragraphs, not empty spaces between paragraphs) and because it creates problems for graphic designers.

In addition to this space after of 12 pt in my “Body” style, I have heading styles that are based on the “Body” style (which means that they inherit the space after setting of 12 pt) and have, additionally, a “Space before” setting of 12 pt as well. Why is that? Well, because visually it looks better if there is some extra space at the end of a section before the heading that marks the beginning of the next section. Instead of applying a “Space after” setting of 24 pt manually to the last paragraph of a section before starting the next section, I find it more logical to include a setting of 12 pt of space before in the style definition for the heading style. This 12 pt of space before in the heading style, combined with the 12 pt of space after of the previous paragraph (which is in “Body” style), creates a total space of 24 pt before the text of the heading.

And that’s where Word 2004 (and Word X) start acting up.

For some reason, starting with Word X, Microsoft has decided that, if a paragraph (B) formatted with a space before of 12 pt is preceded by a paragraph (A) formatted with a space after of 12 pt, then Word should ignore the 12 pt of space before of Paragraph B and only apply the 12 pt of space after of Paragraph A.

If you remove the 12 pt of space after from the formatting of Paragraph A, then miraculously the 12 pt of space before of Paragraph B reappears, and the total space between A and B remains at 12 pt. If you want to have 24 pt of space between A and B, you actually have to either apply 24 pt of space before to Paragraph B, in which case Word will then keep 12 pt of the 24 pt of space before and add them to the 12 pt of space after of Paragraph A, for a total of 24 pt of space between A and B.

This is unbelievable. Beyond the fact that it totally screws up my own way of using styles to create space between paragraphs, headings and sections, it is a behaviour that is completely beyond the control of the user. It’s a typical example of the numerous behaviours in Word that try to outsmart the user and end up making the user’s experience totally confusing. After all, what is the user supposed to think if, when he applies a formatting of 12 pt of space before to a paragraph, this formatting doesn’t seem to work? “Did I do something wrong here?”

This is the kind of stuff that just enrages me. What am I supposed to do now? Rethink my entire way of using styles? Just go back to using Word the dumb way, with double paragraph marks and everything, like everybody else? And what will then happen if I send one my documents to someone who still uses Word 2001 or a previous version? Will there be 12 pt of additional space when he opens the document in his version of Word? This means, of course, that I have no control over what the document will actually look like and how it will paginate. And I bet Microsoft didn’t include that particular criterion in their new “Compatibility Report” in Word 2004!

I am furious.

13 Responses to “Word 2004: Totally irrational behaviour with ‘Space Before’ setting in paragraph styles”

  1. brian w says:

    Isn’t this the same way margins in CSS work? They “collapse” upon one another in certain instances. Or maybe that’s padding. I forget. It makes my head hurt.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I don’t know enough about CSS, but it’s based on inheritance, which is a separate mechanism.

    This thing is just an ad hoc behaviour that effectively makes pagination totally unpredictable, depending on what version of Word is used to view/print the document. Grrr. (Not that pagination was 100% predictable without this, but this is a significant setback.)

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Alright, Rick Schaut has given me the fix… (It seems to me that such information could be given in a comment on this blog rather than in a private e-mail, but there you go.)

    The “feature” is apparently called “HTML paragraph auto spacing” and it can be turned off using the “Compatibility” pane in Word’s Preferences. The “Don’t use HTML paragraph auto spacing” box needs to be checked.

    Apparently, such options travel with the corresponding document (another reason why the “Preferences…” menu command is disabled when no document is open). So even if the document is viewed with a different version of Word, if the “Don’t use HTML paragraph auto spacing” box is checked the behaviour with spacing before will work as expected.

    Of course, this means that I have to change the setting in my templates and in all the documents I have created in the past three years…

    So Brian, you might be onto something… Maybe this “feature” has to do with HTML/CSS — HTML according to Microsoft, that is. What on earth HTML has to do with paragraph spacing in documents intended for print, I don’t know. How is the user supposed to guess that there is a connection between this unexplainable behaviour and a check box in the “Compatibility” pane?

    I don’t know anyone serious about web page design that uses Word for authoring web pages. And I certainly don’t see the relevance of introducing HTML-related behaviours in Word by default without telling the user.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    “don’t” + OFF = “do”

    In other words, the fact that the option is OFF means that the irrational paragraph spacing behaviour is ON by default.

  5. JMTee says:

    Well, at least the ‘Don’t use HTML paragraph auto spacing’ is off by default in the Word 2004 preferences…

  6. JMTee says:

    Oops. You are right, I got it mixed up.

  7. Halski says:

    I have had exactly the same issue!! I work in a law firm and this impact on us is massive. We have thousands of precedents that are used every day and it will mean redeveloping our templates, styles and precedents.

    Thanks Microsoft…

  8. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for your feedback and additional information. If I remember correctly, Microsoft did allege that the change was introduced as part of Word’s “Web-oriented” features. Who would ever think of using MS Word for designing web pages, I don’t know, but that’s indeed where the “inspiration” for this feature comes from. As you noted, however, as long as Word doesn’t support two different kinds of spacing (margins and padding), things will just continue to be proprietary and frustrating for users.

  9. Dan Price says:

    Ah yes, I forgot to address that issue of Word being “Web-oriented”. As you said, any sane person probably would never use Word to design a web page. However, users of MS Outlook might recognize that one of the options there under Mail Format is to “Use MS Word to edit e-mail messages”. With HTML compatibility added to word, this allows users to compose an HTML e-mail so that their formatting is visible to any recipient whose client can display HTML. It also enables someone to take a Word-format document and save it in a format that can be more easily viewed on the web (losing some features of course).

    Would I ever use these features? Probably not. Still, I’d rather have a Word that tries to adopt standards than a Word that sticks with its proprietary formats and doesn’t allow any interaction with the standardized world.

  10. Pierre Igot says:

    This assumes that HTML-formatted e-mail is a good idea, which it is not. It only exists because Microsoft forced it down our throats by making it the default e-mail format in Outlook for so many years. And using Word for writing e-mails is another monstrosity that only Microsoft could cook up.

    As for HTML e-mails being “visible to any recipient whose client can display HTML”, this is far from guaranteed. MS’s HTML is so twisted that there are good chances that at least some elements of it won’t be rendered properly. And think of all the hours that software developers have to spend to try and make sure that MS’s HTML will be rendered acceptably in their applications, in spite of the fact that it’s totally non-standard and full of ugly hacks…

    I am afraid I cannot describe this as “adopting standards”. When MS adopts standards, it usually destroys them in the process.

  11. Dan Price says:

    I just want to say thanks for this rant and Pierre’s solution. I was working on a set of invoice templates and had one looking just right, then made the same changes to another one and it acted differently when it came to the spacing between paragraphs. One was collapsing the space and the other was not. I Googled for the symptoms and found this page with the answer I needed and would never have found on my own.

    I also want to comment on Microsoft’s decision to implement this change… I actually think that it makes more sense from a publishing point of view to collapse the spacing. If I define a style as having 12pt of spacing above it, I expect that to always be the spacing unless something above it has a spacing-below greater than 12pt. If one style has a spacing-below of 4pt and a style below it has a spacing-above of 12pt, I would NOT want a 16-pt space between them because I didn’t ask for 16-pt spacing anywhere.

    Basically, I would assume few people cared about this until we actually sat down and tried to come up with standards for CSS, which, among other things, separates the ideas of padding and margins. Padding is space between an object and the inside of its container, while margins are space between the outside of one container and the outside of a neighboring container. That space between containers is shared space, so any conflicting values will collapse into the larger one.

    The issue with Word is that it lets you assign “spacing before” and “spacing after” but it only gives you one setting for each. So which type of spacing is it, padding or a margin? Well, in older versions of word it was padding, which couldn’t cross container borders so it was added. In newer versions, it’s a margin. Which is better? Everyone will have a different opinion there I’m sure.

    Ideally Word would let us set paragraph padding and margin values separately, but MS decided to just give us the option of which type of spacing the one value should be (although it’s buried where few will ever find it).

  12. Dan Price says:

    Well I didn’t intend to hijack this into a Microsoft bashing thread… but in the past I would agree with you. However, seeing more recent versions of MS products has left me a little more optimistic.

    Just as one example, FrontPage used to be the worst thing one could ever do to a web site, for many reasons including the non-standard code and ugly hacks you mentioned, while Dreamweaver stuck to the standards and was respected for its preservation of your code… If all you do is open a file and change one word, DW would just change that one word while FP would reformat the whole document to its liking. However, the latest version of FP is much more reasonable. While I still wouldn’t use it for general site design, it’s a huge improvement over the earlier versions we all love to hate.

    MS may still be the bad guy, but now I view him as more like Satan from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut… Evil, but yearning to be better. :)

  13. Pierre Igot says:

    It’s taking them way too long to get better :). I am using Word 2004, sitting and waiting while it struggles to keep up with my own speed as a typist and user, and thinking: “We are in 2005. It’s a word processor. I have a computer that’s fast enough to play a GarageBand composition with 15 software instrument tracks, but cannot keep up with my typing? This is insane.” Sorry, but I don’t see much progress myself.

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