More about the non-printing characters in Word (all versions)

September 5, 2009 at 2:13 pm

In earlier posts, I’ve mentioned Word’s “non-printing characters,” but only in passing. Even in my early post about the paragraph symbol (pilcrow), I didn’t go into details about the non-printing characters: what they are, how to display (and hide) them, how to troubleshoot issues involving them.

The non-printing characters are what Microsoft calls “formatting marks.” They indicate the presence of various types of formatting, but they do not print with the document, even when they are displayed on the screen. Essentially, they serve as markers or signposts that you can use to figure out what’s going on in your document.

Types of Non-Printing Characters

There are several different non-printing characters that you can display. Among them:

  • The paragraph symbol or pilcrow (which contains formatting codes for the preceding paragraph)
  • Tab markers, inserted when you press the Tab key (depicted as arrows)
  • Spaces, inserted when you press the space bar (depicted as dots toward the vertical center of a line)
  • Non-breaking spaces, inserted when you press Ctrl Shift space bar (depicted as a degree symbol)
  • Line breaks (depicted as a bent left-pointing arrow)
  • Page breaks (depicted as a densely dotted line with the words “Page Break” in the middle)
  • Section breaks (depicted as a two densely dotted lines with the words “Section Break,” followed by the type of break (Next Page) or (Continuous), in the middle); note that section breaks contain the instructions for the page formatting — margins, headers and footers, page orientation, etc. — of the section preceding the break
  • Column breaks (depicted as a dotted line with the words “Column Break” in the middle)
  • Hidden text (depicted as a dense line of dots — usually colored a shade of purple — immediately underneath the text)**
  • Optional or conditional (“soft”) hyphens, inserted when you press Ctrl hyphen (depicted as a hyphen with a short vertical extension at the right side)
  • Non-breaking (“hard”) hyphens, inserted when you press Ctrl Shift hyphen (which looks almost exactly like an en dash but is slightly higher up)
  • Object anchors, used to pin graphics or other “floating” items to a particular location in a document (depicted as an anchor)
  • End-of-cell and end-of row markers in tables (depicted as a circle with lines coming out of it; to me the symbol looks something like a mini-sun); these markers contain formatting codes for the individual cell and row, respectively

Another non-printing character you’ll see at times is a small black square that appears in the margin to the left of a paragraph. That symbol indicates that someone has applied one or more of the following Line and Page Break options found in the paragraph dialog: Keep with next, Keep lines together, Page break before, or Suppress line numbers (the mark doesn’t appear if Widow/Orphan control or Don’t hyphenate has been applied).

In addition, when you display the non-printing characters, you will see any codes you have inserted to mark items for inclusion in a generated Table of Authorities (TOA). (The same is true if you use TC codes to mark the Table of Contents, or TOC.) CAUTION: Although those codes won’t print when you send the document to the printer, you need to remember to hide the non-printing characters before generating the TOA (and/or TOC). The reason is that the displayed codes do take up space in the document, and they can bump a citation to the next page, such that when you generate, the pagination in the TOA (and/or TOC) will be incorrect.

Codes used to mark Index entries, ordinarily invisible, also will appear when you display the non-printing characters.

How to Display or Hide the Non-Printing Characters

To display or hide the non-printing characters, press the key combination Ctrl Shift * (asterisk) — the asterisk is located above the number 8 in the row of number keys at the top of your keyboard. That key combination, which works in all recent versions of Word, is a toggle. Press once to display the characters; press a second time to hide them.

Alternatively, you can click the paragraph icon that is located on the Standard toolbar in versions of Word up through Word 2003 and in the Paragraph group on the Home tab in Word 2007.

Troubleshooting the Non-Printing Characters

If you have pressed Ctrl Shift * (asterisk) or clicked the paragraph symbol a couple of times in an attempt to hide the non-printing characters but some or all of them remain visible, they’re probably enabled in the Word Options. You’ll need to go into the options and disable them.

In versions of Word prior to Word 2007, click the Tools menu, Options, and look at the View tab. About halfway down, you’ll see a section labeled Formatting Marks. Click to uncheck any boxes with checkmarks in them (including “All”). Be sure to save your settings by clicking OK. After doing so, you should be able to hide the non-printing characters in the normal way again. In Word 2007, click the Office button, Word Options, Display, and do the same. (Note that in Word 2007, the “All” option has been renamed “Show all formatting marks.”)

Codes That Aren’t Considered Non-Printing Characters

Most of the field codes (date codes, page number codes, file name and path codes, etc.) are not considered non-printing characters and won’t display when you press Ctrl Shift * (asterisk) or click the paragraph symbol. To display those codes, press Alt F9. (Press Alt F9 again to hide them and show the code results instead.)

Bookmarks aren’t non-printing characters, and you can’t use Alt F9 to display them. Instead, in versions of Word up through Word 2003, click the Tools menu, Options, navigate to the top portion of the View tab, click to check Bookmarks, and click OK. In Word 2007, click the Office button, Word Options, Advanced, scroll about halfway down to Show document content, and check Bookmarks (if that option is unchecked), then OK out. Note that displaying bookmarks doesn’t reveal their content. Rather, bookmarks appear as gray brackets around bookmarked text.

Finding and Replacing Non-Printing Characters

You can search for (and/or replace) many of the non-printing characters. Just invoke the Find dialog with Ctrl F (or press Ctrl H to open the dialog to the Find and Replace tab), click the More button to display all of the Find options, then click the Special button. You can search for any of these characters:

  • the non-printing paragraph mark (note that you can search for paragraph symbols you have inserted into the text as characters, but keep in mind the difference between the two. Word uses the term “paragraph mark” to mean the non-printing character and the term “paragraph character” to mean the symbol inserted into your document as printable text)
  • tab characters
  • non-breaking spaces (but not regular spaces inserted by pressing the space bar)***
  • non-breaking hyphens
  • optional / conditional (“soft”) hyphens
  • manual line breaks
  • section breaks

Note that if you like, you can insert the caret symbol (the one over the number 6 in the row of numbers at the top of your keyboard) and the appropriate letter or character if you wish to search for one of these non-printing characters. For example, you can type ^p if you want to search for the non-printing paragraph symbol.

You can replace a non-printing character with nothing (leave the Replace with box empty), with another character (including but not limited to non-printing characters), or with text.

Printing the Non-Printing Characters

As far as I know, there is no easy way to print the non-printing characters, though conceivably you could use Find and Replace to substitute printable paragraph characters for non-printing paragraph marks (and use similar workarounds for other non-printing characters). The only simple method that occurs to me is to take a screenshot by using Print Scrn (or using a program such as SnagIt) and pasting the contents of the clipboard into a blank document.

**To hide text, select it, open the Font dialog (by pressing Ctrl D or using any other method you prefer), and clicking the checkbox next to “Hidden.”

***If you search for “White Space,” Word will find normal spaces, but if you have several consecutive spaces, it highlights all of them as a group, rather than individually. Also, a search for “White Space” turns up other non-printing characters (including non-breaking spaces and non-breaking hyphens) in addition to normal spaces.

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