Word 2004: Dumb ‘smart cut-and-paste’ behaviour when it comes to text formatting

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
July 25th, 2005 • 4:50 pm

Word 2004 (as well as various other versions of the software) has a so-called “Smart Cut-and-Paste” feature that is supposed to make cutting and pasting text from text block to text block more intuitive.

What it does, in essence, is that, depending on the textual context surrounding the insertion point, when you paste text, Word will add or remove space characters before/after the pasted text to make it fit into the sentence without interfering with the existing punctuation or gluing the ending of one word to the beginning of another.

In general terms, it’s a reasonably useful feature, so I have it on by default. Unfortunately, as is always the case with Microsoft as soon as you try to use a feature in real-world situations, this “smart” feature is marred by pretty dumb behaviours in certain situations.

The situation I am interested in today is the following. Let’s say that you have your own document window (Document A), in which the default body text style is Times New Roman 11 pt. Then you open another document window (Document B), which has text in Book Antiqua 12 pt bold. You select a few words of that text in Book Antiqua 12 pt bold, do “Copy“, and then you place your insertion point at the end of an existing word (i.e. right after the last letter of the word) in the middle of a sentence in Document A. Remember: the sentence is in Times New Roman 11 pt.

Then you do “Paste“. If the “Smart Cut-and-Paste” feature was not on, Word would paste the clipboard text right after the last letter of the existing word, which would create a undesirable word collage, that you would have to separate manually by placing your cursor in the right location and manually inserting a space.

Since “Smart Cut-and-Paste” is on, Word gets smart and actually inserts a space before the pasted text. Fair enough.

But now you have a block of text in Book Antiqua 12 pt bold in the middle of a paragraph in Times New Roman 11 pt. So you select the text you’ve just pasted by double-clicking on the first word and dragging to extend the selection to the last word, and then you remove its formatting. (There are several ways to remove text formatting in Word. I do it by pressing command-shift-option-Space, which is my keyboard shortcut for the “Default Paragraph Font” character style. Your mileage may vary.)

Now everything is Times New Roman 11 pt and you can proceed, right? So you place your cursor at the beginning of the paste text and start typing some additional text. Guess what? It’s in bloody Book Antiqua 12 pt bold!

How is this possible? Well, you see, when Word got “smart” and added a space before the pasted text, it had to decide whether this additional space would be in the style of the existing text in the paragraph (Times New Roman 11 pt) or the style of the text in the clipboard (Book Antiqua 12 pt bold). And it decided to use the latter…

The problem is that it makes no sense. Why should the formatting of this additional space be the formatting of the pasted text, and not the formatting of the underlying paragraph? The user is much more likely to want to change the formatting of the pasted text to the formatting of the underlying paragraph then to want to do the opposite. When in doubt about the user’s intentions, the programmer should always chose the option that the user is more likely to want.

The problem here, I think, is that I am probably being too generous when I say that a “decision” was made to use the formatting of the pasted text rather than the formatting of the underlying paragraph. In all likelihood, the developer designed this “smart” routine to add spaces around a pasted block of text without even considering text formatting issues. And it just so happens that, the way the space-adding routine was implemented, the space takes on the formatting of the pasted text. In all likelihood, nobody at Microsoft ever even discussed the need to make a decision about text formatting here.

Unfortunately, what I described above is not some far-fetched scenario that would only happen in the rarest of circumstances. It is something that happens regularly when composing Word documents and using text cut and pasted from elsewhere, with different formatting options.

One final note: One could use the “Paste without Formatting” command here, which would strip the formatting from the text before pasting it and therefore avoid the problem with the space having the wrong formatting. However, as we have seen before, the “Paste without Formatting” command is an overzealous and somewhat destructive command that also strips important characters such as the non-breaking space, which is a significant annoyance when working in a language that uses non-breaking spaces everywhere, like French.

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