Word 2004: More on automatic paragraph spacing

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
June 25th, 2004 • 4:02 am

As indicated in the comments on yesterday’s item on an unfathomable paragraph spacing behaviour in Word, it turns out, as I suspected, that the behaviour is intentional. It’s actually a feature called “HTML Paragraph Auto Spacing” and can be turned off or on on a document-specific basis through the “Compatibility” pane in Word’s “Preferences” dialog box.

Apparently, the feature was first introduced in Word 2000 for Windows, and then in Word 2001 for the Mac, and has been with us ever since. And all that time I was thinking that my “Normal” template styles had somehow become corrupted…

Anyhow, the fact that it is indeed a feature and that it can be turned off or on doesn’t really address several major issues that I raised yesterday. On the contrary, it provides, once again, a perfect example of all that is wrong with Word.

First of all, there is absolutely no trace of the feature (as far as I can tell) in Word’s on-line “Help” feature. In order to find out about it, you have to either try your luck with Microsoft’s Knowledge Base, which is very Windows-centric, or explore the Microsoft-blessed newsgroups using Google Groups or another similar newsgroup-searching facility.

It is simply unacceptable that users should have to go on the net and search through user-hostile archives of all kinds of unrelated content in order to find any information on such a problem. But there you go.

The second problem is that, apart from the setting in the “Compatibility” preference pane, there is absolutely no clue in the Word interface itself as to where the behaviour comes from. How is the regular user supposed to make the connection between something that looks like a buggy paragraph spacing behaviour and a setting in the “Compatibility” preference pane called “HTML Paragraph Auto Spacing“. What does paragraph spacing have to do with HTML?

There are already far too many different places in Word that you need to access in order to turn unwanted behaviours off: the “Preferences” dialog box, the “AutoFormat As You Type” dialog box, the “AutoCorrect” dialog box, the “AutoText” dialog box, etc.

Why isn’t this automatic paragraph spacing behaviour part of the “AutoFormat As You Type” dialog box? Only Microsoft knows. There is absolutely nothing in the Word user interface that indicates that this paragraph spacing issue is an issue related to “compatibility” (with what?)!

The problem here is that, in order to understand things, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a Microsoft developer. It’s impossible to fathom as a Word user. You have to see Word from the point of view of a Microsoft developer, and you have to know that, at some point, Microsoft decided to introduce changes in Word that were supposed to bring the application closer to something that can be used for creating web pages.

Anyone who knows anything about web page authoring knows that the idea of creating web pages with Word is a totally ridiculous proposition, that including web-authoring features in Word is just a marketing ploy by Microsoft. The HTML code generated by Word goes beyond non-compliance with web standards. It’s an insult to web designers world-wide. It’s positively atrocious.

Anyway… Once you know that, you need to understand that, in Microsoft’s vision of HTML, there are certain standards for paragraph spacing. Never mind the fact that HTML is a markup language, i.e. a language used to mark the various structural elements of a document. The <p>…</p> tag is used to mark the beginning and the end of each paragraph of text. That is all. It says absolutely nothing about paragraph spacing. Paragraph spacing is up to the browser’s rendering engine. Most browsers choose to render paragraphs of text in web pages with a bit of spacing after each paragraph. But that has nothing to do with HTML itself.

Now, the creator of a web page can control paragraph spacing to a certain extent by using cascading style sheets in which he can specify bottom or top padding or margin settings for text marked with paragraph tags. But that’s up to the web page designer. There might be some behaviours with margin/padding settings in the CSS standards that ressemble this weird automatic behaviour that Microsoft has introduced in Word with respect to paragraph spacing — I don’t know enough about CSS myself. But the very idea that some arcane aspect of web page design would end up influencing the way paragraph spacing works in a word processor, which is first and foremost used to design documents for printing purposes, is preposterous. Yet that’s exactly what happens in Word — and the Word user is supposed to somehow be born with natural, intuitive knowledge of such things.

Finally, if you try and explore the issue a bit further, again by attempting to adopt the point of view of a Microsoft developer, you’ll quickly realize that things are utterly confused and there’s just no way that the “feature” can be understood and used properly by the average Word user — unless (possibly) he does everything in a certain way, using all of Microsoft’s automatic features without customizing or turning off any of them.

For example, this Knowledge Base article talks about the feature in Word 2000:

The ability to automatically insert space before and after a series of paragraphs that appear one after the other, with no breaks or other items in between, is new to Word 2000. This type of paragraph formatting allows you to force spacing before and after a group of paragraphs.

In earlier versions of Word for Windows, you must create three separate styles whenever you use bulleted lists, numbered lists, and regular lists. The second and third styles are required for the first line in the list (which usually needs extra space before it) and the last line in the list (which usually needs extra space after it).

Do you get any of this? This is a feature called “HTML Paragraph Auto Spacing”, but it’s actually about bulleted and numbered lists! And it doesn’t say anything about mysteriously suppressing spacing before heading styles like I have experienced.

Some people in the Microsoft newsgroups have tried to explain things differently. Here’s what one of them says, for example:

Word’s interparagraph spacing is the greater of the respective After and Before
values, not the sum of them. There’s no ideal solution, but I’ve found it easier
to automate the formatting by using only the Above value — set the minimum
space you need ABOVE paragraphs of a give style, and let the space after be
determined entirely by what follows.

Pretty neat, uh?… Uh?!?

So there you go. Microsoft’s version of an open standard, and how it can wreak havoc with all the hard work you’ve done over the years trying to master the monstrous beast and customize it to your liking.

If this were an isolated incident, of course, I wouldn’t dwell on it… But unfortunately, it’s just typical of everything that’s wrong with Microsoft and with Word. They just don’t get it. At all.

6 Responses to “Word 2004: More on automatic paragraph spacing”

  1. John D says:

    I thought I was alone but, thankfully, it seems I’m not. I am a professional industrial writer who has long had to endure the outrage that is MS Word. In the larger picture, the problem is that the same band of incompetents who gave us Word have the gall to pretend their software can run supply chains. But for now I’ll just point out that, in my experience at any rate, ticking the ‘Don’t use HTML…’ box does NOT deal with Word’s erratic paragraph spacing behaviour. I have just been using a document formatted perfectly normally, with ’0′ spaces between pars, just as I want it. If I highlight the text and click the ‘normal’ formatting button I’ve put in my task bar, the pars go to auto spacing – 14 pts between each – which is NOT in the normal.dot template. Just using this cretinous system every day deepens my loathing of Microsoft and everything it stands for. It’s nice to know there are others who feel the same. Now, if I can calm myself, I’d better get on with some work.

  2. Joseph R says:

    Bonjour Pierre (if I may…)

    Je suis en train de préparer mon cours sur “la présentation de l’article de recherche” dans un traitement de texte pour nos étudiants de langues, à l’université de Rennes 2. Je dois fournir une version pour MS Word et une autre pour Open Office, ce qui m’a amené à m’interroger sur l’équivalent de l’espacement Auto de paragraphes de Word dans Open Office (il n’y en a pas).

    De fil en aiguille, je suis arrivé sur votre Betalogue, dont j’aime bien le ton de parole et la mise en page. Bref, votre post sur le comportement bizarre du paragraphe automatique dans Word a été une illumination pour moi! J’ai enfin compris pourquoi ce paramètre me donnait un espace vertical aussi grand, et le remède: il faut cocher la case “Ne pas utiliser l’espacement automatique de paragraphe HTML” et tout rentre dans l’ordre. Dingue, non?

    Bon, maintenant qu’on a compris, j’ai d’autres questions, que je vous soumets à tout hasard, n’ayant pas trouvé la réponse sur le Web, et pas encore consulté des manuels de typographie appropriés. Voici.

    Q1- Y a-t-il une norme ou au moins des recommandations concernant les dimensions optimales d’un espacement vertical de paragraphes dans le corps de texte? Serait-ce quelque chose comme l’équivalent d’une ligne vierge?

    Q2- Une fois éliminé le problème du “paragraphe HTML” dans Word, peut-on penser que l’espacement Auto proposé par Word est correct?

    Q3- Quid de l’espacement entre les paragraphes constitués de listes numérotées ou à puces? Doit-il être nul (zéro points)?

    Merci d’éclairer ma lanterne.

    Joseph R.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Ce blog est bilingue, alors allons-y :).

    R1- Pas que je sache. Il y a peut-être des recommandations à ce sujet dans la tradition typographique, mais je ne les connais pas. Ceci dit, on a quand même un certain nombre de points de repère: dans le courrier électronique, les gens utilisent des doubles retours de chariot pour créer de l’espace entre les paragraphes. Et les navigateurs Web utilisent par défaut un espace entre paragraphes (c’est-à-dire entre les blocs délimités par <p>) qui semble correspondre en gros à une ligne de vide. Alors je dirais que c’est probablement un bon équivalent. (Personnellement, j’utilise une taille de police de 11 pt et un espacement de 12 pt entre paragraphes par défaut.)

    R2- Une fois que la case “Ne pas utiliser” etc. est cochée, Word n’applique plus d’espacement automatiquement. Le seul espacement qu’il applique est celui que vous avez défini dans vos styles. Je ne sais donc pas à quel espacement automatique vous faites référence.

    R3- Là encore, je n’ai pas l’impression qu’il y ait un usage bien établi. J’ai d’ailleurs fait des recherches à ce sujet il y a quelques années dans le cadre de la création d’un guide stylistique pour la section française du ministère de l’Éducation ici en Nouvelle-Écosse. Ce guide est disponible gratuitement ici au format PDF. Vous verrez qu’il contient une section consacrée aux listes numérotées ou à puces. Je recommande l’utilisation d’un espace si chaque élément dans la liste fait plus d’une ligne (et donc a fortiori si chaque élément est un paragraphe entier), parce que cela facilite la lecture. En revanche, si les éléments ne consistent qu’en quelques mots chacun, on peut ne pas vouloir d’espace entre les éléments. Quant à savoir si cet espace doit être de 12 pt, de 6 pt ou autre chose encore… Et puis, il y a aussi la question de l’espace avant le premier élément et de l’espace après le dernier. Moi, j’ai un style pour les listes numérotées/à puces (je n’utilise jamais le format automatique de Word pour cela, qui est une horreur!) avec un espace de 12 pt après par défaut, et un style distinct pour le dernier élément de la liste, avec un espace de 18 points. Comme tous mes paragraphes ont un espace de 12 pt après par défaut, cela veut dire qu’il y a toujours un espace de 12 pt au début de la liste et un espace de 18 pt à la fin. Pour moi, cela facilite la lecture en montrant bien que la liste est liée à ce qui la précède plus qu’à ce qui suit. Mais ce ne sont que mes options par défaut. Il arrive régulièrement que je modifie les styles en question pour tel ou tel document particulier.

    Il me semble que ce sont là des questions de convention plutôt que des questions purement techniques. C’est en fait à vous, à mon avis, de décider des conventions que vous souhaitez que vos étudiants respectent. Il n’existe pas de règle universelle à ce sujet. (Par exemple, si vous demandez par convention que les étudiants utilisent un retrait de première ligne au début de chaque paragraphe, alors l’utilisation d’un espace par défaut entre chaque paragraphe n’est pas obligatoire. Au contraire, elle est presque redondante. On se rapproche alors davantage des conventions typographiques utilisées dans les livres, où il n’y a d’espace qu’entre les sections.)

  4. unclebob says:

    I had similar problem.

    Turns out some of my “normal” paragraphs were actually “normal-web”.

    I used edit replace to change all of the back and problem was fixed.

    Normal paragraphs do allow “auto” for spacing before and space after.

    This is not very relevant to your problems, but perhaps it will help someone else in the future.


  5. Beryl Metcalf says:

    I am just so thankful to find this. Was tearing my hair out with paragraph spacing for my thesis.


  6. Pierre Igot says:

    I do wonder sometimes how many Word-using thesis writers still have hair on their heads. I do remember losing quite a bit myself when I wrote my thesis back in the day, but thankfully I have had time to recover…

    Anyway, I am glad these posts can still be of some use to some people!

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