Word 2004: The problem with Superscript

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
October 8th, 2004 • 7:01 am

Problems with superscript characters have been plaguing us in word processing and graphic design for many years. And there are no signs that things will improve any time soon. Far too often, when I provide a graphic designer with a word processing file containing text that uses superscript, the superscript formatting gets lost and requires extensive reviewing and tedious corrections in the final document proofs.

Of course, the superscript problem affects me more because I happen to work in French, a language which requires superscript formatting in a number of situations, including abbreviations such as “Mme” and ordinals such as “1er“, “2e“, etc.

I am fully aware that things are not so clear in English, where there is on-going debate about whether the letters in ordinals (“1st“, “2nd“, etc.) should be in superscript or not. The fact of the matter is, however, that, even in English, there are a number of situations in which superscript may be required (in mathematics, for example).

One of the main sources of the problem is, as far as I can tell, Microsoft Word itself. In the default Word configuration, the default command for formatting some characters as superscript is command-shift-=, which is the equivalent of checking the “Superscript” option in the “Font…” dialog box.

From a graphic design perspective, however, this type of character formatting is just as bad as so-called “manual” bold or italics formatting. And, just as manual bold or italics formatting can be lost when placing a word processing file in a page layout application such as Adobe InDesign CS, this type of superscript formatting easily gets lost when placing text in a page layout design.

I don’t have extensive experience with all the major page layout applications out there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them didn’t have file import filters for word processing files that simply ignore manual superscript formatting in those word processing files. It is certainly my experience that, when I provide a Microsoft Word file with manual superscript to a designer, I often get back a page layout design in which the superscript formatting has been lost. I then have to instruct the graphic designer to apply superscript formatting manually in his/her page layout application in all the required locations. It is very tedious and error-prone, obviously.

What is the solution here? Well, obviously Word doesn’t make things easy for us by using manual formatting by default in so many situations. But, again in my experience, properly defined character styles tend to work better with graphic designers than manual formatting.

For example, the style used by Word for footnote and endnote references also uses superscript, as required by typographic conventions, but this time Word uses an actual character style called “Footnote Reference“. And such footnote references are usually preserved when placing the Word file in a page layout application.

So what I have done in my Word templates is that I have actually defined a character style called “Superscript” and assigned the command-shift-= keyboard shortcut to it instead of the default (manual) superscript command in Word. This way, every time I put a character in superscript, I actually apply a character style to it — and there is a better chance of the formatting being preserved when importing the file in Adobe InDesign CS or Quark XPress.

My “Superscript” style actually uses Word’s manual superscript formatting. (I don’t format the superscript manually by defining the character size and vertical offset, because this wouldn’t scale based on font size.) The only difference is that, instead of applying the manual superscript formatting directly to my characters, I actually apply it through a character style. What’s important is that that character style formatting will still be visible after the file has been imported in Adobe InDesign CS or Quark XPress. After that, the graphic designer can do whatever he/she pleases with my style definition for my “Superscript” character style.

What this illustrates is that, when it comes to sharing files, markup is actually more important than formatting itself. It is more important to have a reliable way of marking characters as being in superscript than it is to actually apply the superscript formatting to them. And the major problem with Word is that so many of its default tools are still based on manual formatting rather than proper markup that can be shared with other applications.

While we are discussing superscript formatting, there’s one more thing that I’d like to mention. A long time ago, some lazy jerk at Microsoft decided that the superscript character formatting used for footnote references should also be used for the footnote numbers in the footnotes themselves. Because of this decision, we keep having an extraordinary number of academic papers in which the footnotes themselves start with a number that is in superscript.

It drives me nuts. Have you ever seen a proper book where footnote numbers in the footnotes themselves are in superscript? Of course not. It looks awful. Whenever I edit academic papers submitted in Word format, I have to go through each and every footnote and remove the superscript formatting from the footnote numbers in the footnotes. Of course, I cannot select the entire footnote section and remove the superscript from the entire selection, because the text of the footnotes themselves might contain legitimate superscript formatting. Grrr.

And after all these years, it still is the default behaviour in footnotes in Microsoft Word. They have no shame.

2 Responses to “Word 2004: The problem with Superscript”

  1. George Fowler says:

    Pierre, I think perfectly legitimate, well-typeset books may indeed use superscripted fn ref numbers with the footnotes. I agree that it is silly with endnotes, but not with footnotes. The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed., doesn’t seem to mention it (though it is hard to prove a negative). For example, looking at my most recent purchases, I find A Handbook of Slavic Clitics, by Steven Franks and Tracy Holloway King, from Oxford University Press (2000), and it appears to be set in TeX with reasonable care, and it uses raised superscripts within the footnotes.

    What I find irritating in Word (all versions, as far as I know) is that it persists in using the same size and height in both main text and footnotes. I’d like the raised superscripts in the footnotes to be a little smaller, and not as high, to appear proportionate to the smaller type used in the footnotes.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    George: I still wonder which came first — the use of superscripted footnote numbers or Word’s imposition of them on the unsuspecting word processing population. :-) Basically, my problem with it is that superscript = reference. The footnote number in the footnote itself is not a reference to the footnote — it’s the actual footnote! Anyway… The least that MS could do is provide an option NOT to use superscript numbers in the footnotes themselves.

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