Text formatting logic according to Microsoft Word 2004

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
December 4th, 2006 • 1:27 pm

This is just the kind of brilliant behaviour that only the extraordinarily skillful Microsoft Word engineers can come up with in their software.

Because of the way many documents that I work with have been formatted (i.e. badly), I make very frequent use of the “Paste Without Formatting” command.

It’s a command that takes whatever formatted text you have copied to the clipboard using command-C or the “Copy” command in the “Edit” menu and pastes it in the current editing location (indicated by the insertion point), but without its existing formatting, instead using the underlying formatting of the destination paragraph.

In an older post, I described how you can easily add this command to your Word 2004 interface. I have assigned the command-shift-option-V keyboard shortcut to it, and, like I said, I use it all the time in my work, because when you have to copy and paste text from badly formatted Word documents (which is the vast majority of them), it’s the only way to preserve your sanity and maintain some decent level of formatting consistency in your own Word documents.

Sadly, I have also already had to describe obvious flaws in Microsoft’s implementation of this feature, such as the fact that, in Word, pasting without formatting also removes non-breaking spaces (an essential part of French punctuation), which are definitely not text formatting. Non-breaking spaces are part of most fonts’ regular character set, and there is absolutely no reason that Word should remove those spaces and replace them with regular spaces when pasting without formatting—except in the warped reality in which Microsoft engineers live and do their work, of course.

Another problem is that, when you copy text from a paragraph that is formatted with an automatic bullet or number, and then paste it without formatting, Word arbitrarily adds the bullet or number as a regular character at the beginning of the text, even if you only selected a small string of text inside the paragraph and your selection definitely did not include the bullet or number at the beginning of the paragraph.

Today, I would like to add to the list another obvious flaw in the implementation of the feature. It’s very easy to reproduce.

  1. First, type a string of text in lower case in a Word document.
  2. Then select the string of text and apply the “Small Caps” formatting option to it.
  3. Then select the string of text and copy it to the clipboard with command-C.
  4. Then go to a different location in your document and use the “Paste Without Formatting” command to paste the copied text without its formatting, i.e. (presumably) without the small caps formatting option.

Normally, you would expect to get the original string of text in lower case, right? After all, small caps is just a formatting option, and Word is supposed to paste the text without its formatting.

Ah, but this is Microsoft we are talking about. Instead of doing the obvious and expected, they always find ways to surprise and annoy you.

In this particular case, what the “Paste Without Formatting” command does is that it pastes the copied text… in all caps! And of course, it doesn’t use the “All Caps” formatting option for this (since you are pasting plain text without any formatting). It actually changes the case of the text you have typed, as if you had manually applied the “Change Case…” command to it!

Argh! This behaviour is full of unjustified assumptions. It assumes that what the user wants is text in all caps, probably because all caps is, in the eyes of Microsoft engineers, the best approximation of small caps in plain text. But that’s not what the very name of the command says! The very name of the command is “Paste Without Formatting“—not “Paste Without Formatting and Adjust Case and Strip Non-breaking Spaces and Add Manual Bullet or Number to Replace Automatic One While You Are At It“!

The irony is that this occurs even when the “Small Caps” formatting option is applied to the text using Word’s own formatting tools. In other words, Word defies its very own logic with this non-standard, arbitrary behaviour.

And of course, this occurs each and every time you paste without formatting text formatted with small caps. And each and every time you have to clean up the mess after Word does its thing by reselecting the pasted text and manually using the “Change Case…” command to change the text back to lower case.

One of the essential attributes of quality computer software is predictability. If something is in the Formatting Palette and is called “formatting,” when I use a command called “Paste Without Formatting,” I expect that thing to be removed from my text, not arbitrarily converted to some plain text approximation of what Microsoft thinks it is that I want.

Same old story, I guess… The only way to work around this behaviour is not to use the “Paste Without Formatting” command, and instead to paste the text with its formatting, and then reselect the text and strip the formatting manually after the fact. But of course since I use the “Paste Without Formatting” command regularly, I keep forgetting this, and I keep having to deal with Word’s unpredictable behaviour.

2 Responses to “Text formatting logic according to Microsoft Word 2004”

  1. mricart says:

    Hi Pierre,

    FYI, I think the problem is when copying, not when pasting. If you copy a small-cap text and then paste it in e.g. BBEdit, you get all caps. I believe this is due to the fact that the small-cap attribute cannot be stored in the the clipboard, so MS guys selected to convert to caps when copying the text. They could have selected to drop the small-cap atribute when copying, but in fact I think what is missing is a “Copy without formatting” command instead.


  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Interesting. Word must obviously have a way to store the Small Caps attribute in the clipboard, since you can cut and paste (with a regular “Paste” command) text in Small Caps in Word and it stays in Small Caps.

    In addition, if you try the same thing you described, but between Pages and BBEdit, you’ll note that the correct thing happens (i.e. the text in Small Caps is pasted in BBEdit without small caps formatting, in lower case).

    So, while you are right in saying that it probably is something that happens when copying and not when pasting, it’s still something that only happens with Word. The obviously conclusion here is that there is something wrong with the whole way that Word uses the clipboard.

    This view is supported by other bits of evidence, such as the fact that Word has a tendency to crash in the background when copying and pasting stuff between Word and other applications.

    Similarly, when I copy text in Pages that’s in a list item with an automatic bullet or number, and paste it in another application, I don’t get the bullet or number along with the text. So it’s another example of something that Word does differently. Probably in the copying rather than in the pasting too, but again, it does not exonerate Microsoft’s engineers.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.