Word: Show all marks

May 10, 2010

For the first few years I used Word, I just used it ‘out-of-the-box’ and changed very few settings — like much of the population, I guess. Most of Word’s power was well and truly hidden from me.

About 15 or more years ago (yes, I’ve been using Word a LONG time), I was looking over a work colleague’s shoulder discussing a document he had displayed on his screen. And all I could see were these horrid little dots between every word, funny backwards P markers at the end of lines, long arrows between step numbers and the first letter of the step text, etc. I reeled back in horror and asked how on earth he could read the text with all that other stuff messing up his view of it. He assured me that he always worked that way and that it was a really efficient way to work. I didn’t believe him.

Fast forward only a year or so later, and I was a convert to showing all those formatting marks. It took me a while to get used to viewing a document like that, but boy, did it show me a lot of crud in Word documents, especially those written by others.

Manual layout was the biggest ‘crud’ issue, and it still is — people used tabs or spaces to center text instead of the centering tool; line spaces between paragraphs were controlled by two Enters, not styles; two spaces after a period were obvious; standard spaces (not non-breaking spaces) were used to separate values and their units of measure; soft line breaks line and page breaks and section breaks , etc.

Here’s what text looks like with the formatting marks turned on:

Meanings of the different highlight colors used in this screen shot:

  • Apricot: Little black squares indicate that there are some paragraph settings applied to this paragraph (e.g. Keep With Next).
  • Yellow: Arrows indicate that a Tab was inserted (in this case, the tab was automatically inserted as part of the outline numbering, but manually inserted tab marks look just the same).
  • Green: Spaces between words (a single space and a double space are highlighted).
  • Red: Left turn arrow indicates that a soft line break has been inserted
  • Cyan blue: Non-breaking space between a value (43) and its unit of measure (millimeters).
  • Mauve/purple: Paragraph mark indicating that Enter was pressed to create an empty line, instead of using a style to add white space (leading) above and below the paragraph.
  • Pink: The double dotted line indicates a Section break was inserted; the single dotted line shows a hard page break.

Yes, it does take a little while for your eyes to get used to seeing all these formatting marks if you’ve never seen them before, but it is worth doing.

You have to click the pilcrow icon (; backwards P) to turn the marks on or off:

  • Word 2003: The pilcrow icon is on the main (Standard) toolbar.
  • Word 2007 and later: You’ll find the pilcrow icon on the Home tab > Paragraph group.


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