Word 2004: Is the ‘Language’ setting a character formatting setting or not?

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
September 15th, 2004 • 5:38 am

A long time ago (in software development time), Microsoft Word became a multilingual word processor, meaning that it started supporting the use of more than one language in word documents. (Prior to that, Microsoft would sell localized versions of Word in French, Spanish, etc. — but switching languages was a pain. If you had an English copy of Word, for example, and wanted to use the French spell checker, you had to hunt down a fellow Word user who might have the French version of the software and copy the dictionary files from his version. It must have been particularly painful for French Canadians, who frequently have to switch between English and French.)

The problem, however, is that, in typical Microsoft fashion, the multilingual capability was incorporated into the software in a manner that was far from intuitive. And, again in typical Microsoft fashion, things have not changed one bit since the original introduction of the capability.

More specifically, it is completely unclear, from the Word user interface, how the language setting works in relation to things like character formatting or paragraph formatting. The “Language…” command is found in the “Tools” menu, but it can also be found in the “Format” pop-up menu inside the “New Style” dialog box.

Things are not helped by the fact that the language setting is an invisible setting. There is no visual indication, in the Word interface, of what the language of the selection or of a chunk of text is. The only way to find out is to select a bit of text and go to the “Language…” command in the “Tools” menu. If a specific language setting is highlighted in the “Language” dialog box, then it means that the current selection is in that language. If nothing in the “Language” dialog box is highlighted, on the other hand, it means that the current selection is in more than one language, i.e. some parts of it are in one language, and other parts are in a second language, etc. But there is no way to tell which parts are in which language. You have to guess by changing the selection until you find out. It’s a rather painful process, and it’s not surprising that, because of this, the multilingual capabilities of Word are, like so many other Word features, vastly underused, even by people who would really benefit from using them. (French Canadians are a prime example here.)

The problem is essentially that there is no clear indication, in the Word interface, of what the language setting exactly is. Is the language setting a text formatting setting or not? Does the “Language…” command belong to the “Tools” category or to the “Format” category of Word commands?

The truth is that even Microsoft engineers probably cannot answer this question. If you explore the feature a bit, you will discover the following:

  • The language setting can be applied on a character-by-character basis. In other words, you can have a few words in English in a paragraph of text that is otherwise in French. It’s not a paragraph-wide setting.
  • This means that the language setting behaves much like a character formatting setting, such as “Bold” or “Italics“. It can be applied to as little as a single character and as much as an entire document.
  • This also means that you can include a language setting in a character style definition. It is, in fact, the most convenient way to use Word’s multilingual capabilities. For example, I frequently have to mention English-titled documents in my French texts. These titles need to be in italics (like all document titles in my typographic conventions), but they also need to have an “English” language setting that will force Word’s spell checker to use the English dictionary when checking the spelling in those titles, instead of trying to check their spelling with the French dictionary and flagging every word as an error. So I actually have two character styles for document titles in my style sheet for French-language documents: one for document titles in French (with the “Italics” setting in the definition) and one for document titles in English (with both the “Italics” setting and the “English (UK)” language setting in the definition). The style for document titles in French does not need to have a specific language setting, because it inherits it from the underlying style, which already has a French language setting in my style sheet for French documents.
  • Unfortunately, while the language setting behaves like a character formatting setting, it is not actually one, and this has one very significant drawback: you cannot use Word’s shortcuts from stripping character formatting from a selection to remove the language setting. For example, if you have a document that is in French, and copy and paste into that document text from another Word document that is in English, the pasted text will be in English. If you select the pasted text and use the “Reset Character Formatting” command (command-shift-Z) to strip the formatting from the pasted text, it will remove whatever character formatting the text has (bold, italics, etc.), but it will not remove the language setting from the text. The only way to remove the language setting from the text is to use the “Language…” command in the “Tools” menu.

In other words, the language setting in Word might look like it’s a character formatting setting, but it’s not treated as one by some crucial Word commands. And that makes it even more impenetrable to unadventurous Word users.

Over the years, I have created ways to circumvent some of these issues. For example, thanks to my systematic use of character styles in my document, I can easily change a character style definition temporarily by adding a text colour setting to it, in order to make text in a particular language visible. In the example above, there is nothing that distingishes my English document title style from my French document title style visually. (They are both in italics.) But I can temporarily add a “Text Color: Blue” setting to my English document title style definition in order to introduce such a visual distinction. This can be useful during the process of editing multilingual documents. And Word really should have a built-in feature that lets you highlight different languages in different colours while editing text, in order to make the language setting visible.

My styles-based approach, however, is not a panacea, because I frequently get documents from other people and, due to all the reasons mentioned above, the vast majority of these other people (in fact, all of them as far as I can tell) never use Word’s “Language…” setting for anything other than to set the default language used by the spell checker in their documents. So when working with other people’s documents, I frequently have to add or remove language formatting from text and I cannot use my styles for it, because the documents don’t have them. So I have also created a series of macro commands that make the process of applying a specific language setting to the selection less painful.

The macros are very simple. For example, the macro used to set the current selection to “English (UK)” is the following:

Sub setEnglishUK()
    Selection.LanguageID = wdEnglishUK
End Sub

(You can find the correct VisualBasic code for your language combination by searching for “LanguageID” in the Word VisualBasic Help feature.)

Once you have macros for all your languages, you can add them to your Word interface as toolbar buttons or menu commands or keyboard shortcuts.

So there you go. Once again, a potentially useful feature in Word is so crippled and so painful to use that most people don’t use it, including those who would actually benefit from using it. And things have not improved one bit in the many years that have elapsed since the feature was first introduced in Word. It’s yet another sign that Microsoft puts little effort into improving the interface for Word’s existing features.

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