Working with Hidden Characters in MS Word

By July 28, 2014Uncategorized

In any given Word document, there are dozens of “hidden” characters which make up the document’s content. This can include simple whitespace items like spaces and tabs, to more advanced items like page breaks and optional hyphens. In this article, we’ll introduce each of these “hidden” characters, describe how you can view them, and discuss how the less obvious ones can be inserted into your document.

To start with, you can toggle the visibility of hidden characters at anytime by navigating to the “Home” tab and selecting the button which looks like a “reverse P” as shown here:


When you turn on the visibility using this button, Word will display the symbols for every hidden character in the document. Below is a summary of each of the available hidden characters:

Tab character ( TabChar) : the arrow icon is fairly recognizable as a tab character, which is obviously the result of pressing the tab key. Showing this character is especially useful when tackling alignment problems, where tabs, alignments, and indentations have been used to position text.

Space characters ( SpaceChar): each dot represents a space. Space characters will be the most widely used hidden character since every sentence contains many of them. Like the tab character, showing the hidden spaces can be useful for tackling positioning issues.

Paragraph Mark (ParagraphChar): not only does this symbol serve as the icon for the hidden character toggle button, but also indicates a paragraph break when shown. A paragraph break as the name suggests, is basically a line break at the end of a paragraph and in between paragraphs. Note that generally the latter (i.e. using breaks as spacing between paragraphs) is bad practice, since spacing between paragraphs should be controlled using the “after” spacing in the Line Spacing options.

Hidden Text (HiddenChars): text can be marked as hidden by selecting some text to hide, and then selecting the “Hidden” effect from the font menu. Hidden text is then indicated by “.” characters underneath. Hiding text can be useful in situations where you want to control the visibility of parts of content for different versions. For example, you could print a copy of a document with the hidden text not shown, then choose print another copy with it shown.

Optional Hyphens (OptHyphen): optional hyphens allow you to control the hyphenation of words when they end up at the end of a line. With optional hyphenation, you place a hyphen using “ctrl” + “-” and if the word won’t fit at the end of a line, then MS Word will attempt to hyphenate the word across the two lines where you inserted the optional hyphen.

Anchor (Anchor): displays an anchor which has been inserted into the text. An anchor is a place where links from other parts of the document can be directed to.

Page Break: as the name suggests, a page break is a hidden character which forces any content after it to start on the next page. Its “hidden character” is indicated as a series of dots surrounding the word “Page Break”, while the actual break can be inserted using the “Page Break” button on the “Insert” tab. Page breaks are useful when there is only a little bit of space left on a page (e.g. only enough room for one more line), but there is too much text to add such that it doesn’t make sense to start new content there. Page breaks are also useful in forcing figures and tables onto new pages when they wouldn’t look too good spanning pages. One thing to be careful of though, is that the breaks may not look so good after you start adding and removing content from before the break, so be sure to allocate some time for a final editing pass to correct this. Also be aware that page breaks are often used as part of character styles, namely heading styles, but won’t display a hidden character when toggled.

One final point: you can control which of these hidden characters are toggled by going to the Office bubble -> Word options -> Display and navigating to the “Always show these formatting marks on the screen” list of options.

So there you have it. Next time you need to see the extra characters which make up your Word document, or are trying to troubleshoot spacing issues, be sure to turn on hidden characters.

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