More on word selection in text editors and word processors in Mac OS X

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
December 7th, 2003 • 7:00 am

Last time, I wrote about how inconsistent and non-intuitive the word selection mechanisms are in Word X and most other Mac OS X applications (including Apple’s own). My focus then was on the role of the apostrophe as a word separator and the fact that, linguistically speaking, it makes more sense to consider characters before and characters after the apostrophe as two separate words when apply word selection mechanisms — because in most cases these are two separate words. And I also mentioned that BBEdit is a notable exception, and the only text editor I am aware of that selects word in a “smart”, linguistically consistent fashion.

Well, the same thing extends to other separator characters, and especially the hyphen. Both English and French (and other languages) use the hyphen to construct so-called compound words and phrases (examples: brushed-metal, c’est-à-dire, etc.). Of course, it could be argued that writers or editors are just as likely to wish to treat such words as single words as they are to wish to treat them as several separate words.

But the current mechanisms don’t give us the option. In most applications, compound words are considered single words for word selection (i.e. double-clicking anywhere in a compound word selects the entire compound word). Here again, BBEdit is the exception. (It treats each part of the compound word as a separate word for selecting purposes.)

Even more interestingly, the default Mac OS X behaviour does actually make an exception when the characters before and after the hyphen are numbers. In 2003-12-07, for example, if you double-click on “2003”, it only selects “2003”.

I, however, would personally prefer to have the option to extend such a behaviour to all compound words. One of the reasons for this is that I often use the hyphen as a word separator in file names, because using spaces in file names can be problematic, especially when the files are HTML documents that will be posted on a web site.

Right now, if I call a file “retour-de-force.html” and double-click on one of its words, in all applications except BBEdit, Mac OS X will select all three words, which is not likely to be what I want to do. (“retour-de-force” is not a compound word. It’s three words separated by hyphens.)

Strangely enough, if I use the underscore character (_) as a separator instead of the hyphen (another common practice when naming files to be posted on a web server), when I double-click on “retour_de_force”, all three words are selected both in BBEdit and in other Mac OS X applications. I am not sure why Bare Bones didn’t extend their exception for the hyphen to the underscore character.

The bottom-line, once again, is that users should be given the choice. Right now, they are not, either in BBEdit or elsewhere. Worse still, since BBEdit uses a different approach, we have inconsistent behaviours across Mac OS X applications.

7 Responses to “More on word selection in text editors and word processors in Mac OS X”

  1. ssp says:

    Personally I think Apple’s decision to extend the selection across apostrophes and hyphens is a deliberate and good one. (And I also think that ‘choice is bad’, so there shouldn’t be a setting for it).

    Still, you may want to try out TextExtras and use its ‘pre-Jaguar double click Rules’ feature. That may make you happier hyphen-wise.

    As usual for the good features, its Cocoa only.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I beg to differ. The whole point about having a system-wide preference setting is that we could keep the existing behaviour as the default, but give the option to advanced users.

  3. Clint MacDonald says:

    SSP said, “(And I also think that ?choice is bad?, so there shouldn?t be a setting for it),” to which Pierre replied, “The whole point about having a system-wide preference setting is that we could keep the existing behaviour as the default, but give the option to advanced users.”

    I think you’re both wrong, and both right! What Pierre is most angered at is that selection behavior changes from application to application. Although I would probably prefer BBEdit’s behavior, what is really needed is for Apple to declare and enforce a human interface guideline with regard to selection behavior.

    Sadly, Microsoft Word will continue to use whatever behavior suits their programmers and continue to ignore Macintosh conventions.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Clint: the problem is that there is not one right way of doing things here. You probably have many users who would prefer the BBEdit behaviour, and many who would prefer the current behaviour in applications like Mail. It can also be argued that the behaviour might be language-dependent. The hyphen is not necessarily used in the same way in all languages.

    Where I agree with you is that we need consistency. But we also need flexibility. The current situation provides neither. (And I am not angry, just frustrated :).)

  5. ssp says:

    Pierre: I don’t like all this “let’s have a setting” business, even for hidden settings as havin too many of these will result in huge books with “hints” and “how to get yours settings right” as they have on Windows. I don’t think that should be necessary. I don’t buy all that “advanced users” crap. If you’re that kind of “advanced user” why don’t you simply use emacs. I’m sure there are options for every setting you could drea up in there.

    And as Clint points out – even if there were a global setting, why should BBEdit or even MSOffice respect it? At least one of them wouldn’t.

  6. ssp says:

    Hm, now Pierre sneaked his comment in before mine… Regarding your last comment – you will be aware that making things “language dependent” should be a very difficult task (how could you tell which language is being typed without inconveniencing the user?)

    Did you try out TextExtras? They’d at least make you happier with Mail.

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    ssp: Assuming that all advanced users are geeks is just plain wrong. One of the beauties of the Mac is precisely that it combines simplicity and power. I agree that there is a need to be careful about providing “too many settings” — but the fact of the matter is that computers are used for many, many tasks. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make them better at each task. It doesn’t have to take away from the simplicity of the whole.

    And I am pretty sure that Bare Bones would fully embrace such an improvement. The very fact that they have a different setting for this indicates that they care about such details. As for Microsoft, well, if we had to wait until Microsoft catches up before implementing new features, we’d still be waiting 10 years from now.

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