Display of non-printing characters in Word is “sticky”

July 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

One of the attorneys at the law firm where I’m currently providing floor support for an Office 2010 rollout asked me last week why the paragraph symbols (pilcrows) and other non-printing characters were appearing even when he pressed Ctrl N or otherwise started a new blank document. My first thought was to check the configuration options (in Word 2010, click the File tab, Options,[1] then click the Display category on the left side of the Options screen and look to see if anything is checked under “Always show these formatting marks on the screen“), but the only item that was enabled by default was “Hidden text.”  Hidden text includes, among other things, Table of Authorities codes — i.e., the codes that you insert when you mark a citation for inclusion in a Table of Authorities.  However, it does not include the paragraph symbol.

In other words, the display of the non-printing characters (except for Hidden text) was disabled by default.  (He had enabled the display manually in the document he was working on at the time.)  So why were the paragraph symbols showing up in the lawyer’s brand-new documents?

I did some experimentation and discovered that the display state for the non-printing characters is “sticky,” based on the setting in the current / active document.  That is, if you have chosen to show the non-printing characters in the current document (by clicking the paragraph symbol (¶) in the Paragraph group on the Home tab or by pressing Ctrl Shift * [asterisk]), they will appear, as well, in any new document you launch during the same work session.  By the same token, if you hide the non-printing characters in the current document (by clicking the paragraph symbol or pressing Ctrl Shift * a second time), they will not appear in a new document you launch afterwards.

Of course, that assumes that the Word Options are configured not to show any of the non-printing characters.  If one or more of the characters is enabled (checked) in the Options, that setting will override any change you attempt to make manually (i.e., by clicking the paragraph symbol or using the Ctrl Shift * [asterisk] key combination to toggle the display of the non-printing characters on or off).

So the general rule is:  (1) the non-printing characters always will display if they are enabled in the Options — even if you attempt to turn them off manually; but (2) even if they are disabled in the Options, they will appear in a new blank document if you have turned on the display manually in the current (active) document.  And the display state in the current / active document — on or off — “sticks” (persists) when you start a new document during the work session.

Note that if you open multiple documents and alternate between showing and hiding the non-printing characters, the setting for the last-opened doc is the one that will stick.  In other words, the display state in the last-opened document will persist in both new blank documents and existing documents that you open later in the session.

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[1]  In Word 2007, click the Office Button, Word Options, Display… to change the default settings for displaying the non-printing characters.

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