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.