Microsoft Word and non-breaking spaces: French Typography 101

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Microsoft
June 21st, 2006 • 2:58 pm

In his response to my post about the bug with non-breaking spaces and Postscript (Type 1) fonts in Word 2004 yesterday, Microsoft developer Erik Schwiebert writes:

Let me begin by saying what I am not. I am not the lead developer for Word, and I am not intimately familier with every bug that is entered against our products. I am also not a native French speaker, nor am I familiar with the rules of French typography…

Because I am not well-versed in French typography (or any real typography for that matter) I can only trust that Pierre’s assessment of the importance of the non-breaking space in French documents is indeed high.

To me, these statements suggest two things:

  1. Erik Schwiebert is not entirely sure that I know what I am talking about when I write about French typography and the use of the non-breaking space and therefore has to “trust” me when I say that this is a major bug.
  2. Erik Schwiebert himself doesn’t know much about French typographic rules and cannot really be bothered to learn more about them—even though the software that he is supposed to have been working on in the past four years includes some essential automatic formatting features that are based on these very typographic rules, and these features are turned on by default and therefore, inevitably, used by millions of Microsoft users worldwide.

I’d like to address these two points in greater detail here.

First of all, I certainly wouldn’t want Erik to be forced to “trust” me regarding anything at this point in time, since we don’t know each other personally and his response to my post does not suggest that trust was part of his reaction to my comments on the bug and the quality of Microsoft’s products.

So, here are some facts. I have been working for the past 11 years as a full-time English-to-French translator for the Nova Scotia Department of Education. My initial training includes graduate and post-graduate degrees in French literature, stylistics and linguistics. I am qualified to teach French (language and literature) in the French education system and, indeed, prior to my permanent move from France to Canada in the mid-90s, I worked for several years as a French professor in the French school system and in various university-level positions.

I think it’s fair to say that, objectively, there is a good chance that I know what I am talking about when it comes to French punctuation and typography.

In fact, as part of my current job, I was asked to develop a French Style Guide for the Nova Scotia Department of Education, which was meant to be used as a reference by all French writers and graphic designers working with French text in the Nova Scotia education system and beyond. This style guide was written (technically co-authored with a team of three other people, but I effectively wrote most of it myself) back in 2001 and is freely available as an unprotected PDF document on this page. There is even an English translation of this French Style Guide for people who might want to know more about French writing conventions but are not comfortable with a document written in French. The English version is, again, freely available as an unprotected PDF document.

This document includes a comprehensive review of French rules regarding punctuation, capitalization, typography, and so on. It in fact includes a handy one-page table that summarizes basic typographic rules regarding the most common punctuation marks in French. I want to stress, however, that it is a document that describes the rules that are followed in French-speaking Canada, and not in standard French. There are in fact significant differences between Canadian French typography and standard French typography, which explains why Microsoft Word itself has two different language settings in the “Tools › Language…” dialog box, namely “French” and “French Canadian.”

Since Erik apparently cannot be bothered to look things up himself, however, I suppose that it would be appropriate to provide a brief overview of some basic rules applying to Canadian French and standard French punctuation.

Basically, there are punctuation marks that always require a non-breaking space, in both Canadian French and standard French. These include the colon (:) and the French quotation marks. The opening French quotation mark («) is followed by a non-breaking space, and the closing French quotation mark (») is preceded by a non-breaking space.

And then there are punctuation marks that require a non-breaking space in standard French, but not in Canadian French. These include the exclamation mark (!), the question mark (?), and the semi-colon (;). (Don’t ask me why Canadian French is different from standard French. It’s a really long story.)

In other words, where in English you would have a sentence with punctuation marks like this:

Sample sentence in English

in Canadian French you would have a sentence like this:

Sample sentence in Canadian French

and then in standard French the same sentence would read like this:

Sample sentence in standard French

As you can see if you look at the symbols for the space characters next to the punctuation marks, there are non-breaking spaces all over the place. And that’s just a very simple French sentence! Yet these non-breaking spaces are absolutely necessary, because you just cannot use these punctuation marks without a space in French typography, and if you use a regular space character you are likely to encounter all kinds of situations where the flow of the text causes the punctuation mark to be separated by an automatic line break from the word that it is supposed to be attached to.

Now, I should stress that these are simple typographic rules for French in common word processing software. In higher-end page layout software, you can actually use options that are closer to the original conventions of traditional French typography (before the age of the computer), such as the “thin space,” which can be used in lieu of the non-breaking space before the question mark, for example, and is not as wide.

But it’s hard enough to get proper support for the non-breaking space in modern computer software, as we can see in this whole discussion about Word 2004. So you can easily imagine that more subtle typographic options such as the thin space (and the en space, and the em space, etc.) are just never going to be available to the ordinary word processor user.

Now, here is where it becomes really interesting. As you can imagine when looking at the examples provided above, it can quickly become very tedious for French typists to remember to type all these non-breaking spaces. Fortunately, modern word processors are smart enough to do this automatically for us.

And there is the kicker: Microsoft Word itself actually does know and already uses these typographic rules that I outlined above. The option labelled “Replace as you type › “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes” ” is checked by default in the “AutoFormat As You Type” tab in the “AutoCorrect” dialog box in Word. And that option does much more than what the text label says. It doesn’t just replace straight quotes with smart quotes. It actually uses the appropriate quotation marks for each language, and adds the required non-breaking spaces before and after the punctuation marks based on that language’s typographic rules. So when you are typing in French in Word, Word doesn’t just replace the straight quotation mark with an opening « or a closing » and the non-breaking space that comes with it, but it also automatically adds the non-breaking space before the colon and, in the case of standard French, before the question mark, the exclamation mark, and the semi-colon.

In other words, in order to type the sample sentence shown above, all I actually have to type in Word is this:

Sample sentence in standard French, as typed

Word’s automatic formatting option automatically adds the non-breaking spaces and changes the quotation marks for me—and it does so as I type. (For the record, I don’t actually use this option in Word myself. Since I want these typographic rules to apply to all the French text that I type, regardless of which application I am typing it in, I actually use Spell Catcher X’s automatic replacement feature, which is better than Word’s own and actually works everywhere in any Mac OS X application, including in Word itself.)

I must say that I find it rather ironic and symbolic that Erik Schwiebert does not appear to know about the way that this feature works in Word with various languages, especially in light of the fact that it is a feature that is turned on by default and therefore used willingly or not by millions of Word users worldwide.

What is, of course, doubly interesting is that non-breaking spaces automatically inserted by this AutoFormat As You Type feature in Word are not affected by the bug with Postscript fonts in Word 2004. It’s only when you actually type the non-breaking space yourself manually (by pressing option-Space) that Word 2004 “accidentally” switches from your current Postscript font to the default Times New Roman.

I supposed that this provides Microsoft’s developers with yet another excuse for not having noticed the bug earlier. The trouble is that, because Microsoft’s “Smart Quotes” feature is not all that… smart, you still end up having to type a number of non-breaking spaces manually yourself, even when the automatic feature is turned on in Word—especially when editing already typed French text.

In addition, there are several other circumstances where you might want to manually type in a non-breaking space instead of a regular space—even when typing in English, by the way. For example, when you type the phrase “Mac OS X,” if you type regular spaces between the three “words” (“Mac,” “OS,” and “X”), then there is nothing that stops your word processor from inserting an automatic line break between these words if the phrase happens to occur near the end of a line. It might not be so shocking to you to have “Mac OS” at the end of one line and “X” trailing at the beginning of the next line, but from a purely typographic standpoint, it’s not very pretty. And there are cases where not using manual non-breaking spaces can seriously affect the readability of a document.

So basically it boils down to this: There are a number of mandatory rules applying to Canadian French and French punctuation (and probably other languages as well) that involve the non-breaking space, and Microsoft Word itself is aware of these rules and actually uses them in one of its core features, the language-dependent “AutoFormat As You Type” feature, which is turned on by default in all Word installations. There are also a number of contexts, in many languages, where it is more appropriate to manually insert non-breaking spaces, rather than regular spaces.

Yet clearly there are some Microsoft developers working on Office for the Mac who are not aware of these rules and conventions and don’t really regard them as important. And so they make changes to the software that cause these rules to break or start working improperly, and nobody notices until it’s too late. And then even after the bugs are noticed, nothing is done to fix them because they are not treated seriously enough.

And then when there is a Microsoft Word user who dares to be a bit vocal about such glaring, obvious flaws, they get all defensive, they indirectly (or directly) question the integrity and relevance of that user’s views, and they try to make us believe that these bugs just unfortunate accidents and that they are not indicative the overall quality of the products.

Yeah right.


7 Responses to “Microsoft Word and non-breaking spaces: French Typography 101”

  1. brabalan says:

    I’d love to hear about the differences between Canadian French and French punctuation marks customs. As a French speaker, I had a really hard time adapting to American space / punctuation marks habits. (And Spell Catcher X is really useful, I’m using this as I’m typing ;-) ).

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Alan, you can take a look at the French Style Guide I referred to in order to get a better sense of the rules used in North American French. Essentially, the differences are with the ?, !, and ;.

    What is hard to determine is whether these rules were already firmly established in French Canada by the time word processors started being used, or whether the makers of word processor software, including Microsoft, played a significant role in “enforcing” those rules, either by initially failing to provide convenient tools to apply standard French rules or by setting the French Canadian rules in stone through their automatic features at a time where things were still pretty much up in the air.

    I cannot really answer this question, in part because I wasn’t here at the time.

    What is clear, however, is that the use of the ?, !, and ; without the non-breaking space in French Canada looks suspiciously like the result of the influence of English, which of course is much stronger in North America than it is in France (regardless of what Quebec people might say or think).

    If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be any difference between French Canadian typography and standard French typography. But it’s too late now. Those rules are too common and too firmly entrenched today. And some Québécois with twisted minds probably think these rules make them different and more French than the French. :-)

  3. brabalan says:

    Thanks for your answer. And after a couple short stays in Montreal, I must say I was amazed to hear so many French ways to say words we naturally say in English (such as “shopping” or “parking”). Québec is definitely more French than France :)

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Only as long as you keep your focus on a few flagship words such as “magasinage” and “stationnement” and don’t pay any attention to the numerous anglicisms and bad English-influenced grammar :-).

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