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Platonism of Microsoft Word?

By Rosie Perera | October 21, 2014 at 7:07 pm

I just read an interesting article in the New York Review of Books, “Escape from Microsoft Word” by Edward Mendelson. The author claims that Microsoft Word is built on a Platonic model with the “ideal” of a perfect intangible “document” of which books, letters, memos, and essays are mere imperfect representations. He struggles with what he thinks are the incomprehensible rules of how Word handles formatting, which he found more sensible in WordPerfect before being forced to switch. In Word, you turn on formatting attributes for an entire unit of the text (paragraph, section, whole document) and smaller units (characters, paragraphs, sections) inherit the formatting from the larger unit. You can apply exceptions to the formatting of the larger unit as “direct formatting.” When you apply a style to some text that already has some direct formatting within it, Word has a non-obvious way of deciding whether to keep the direct formatting or cause it to be overridden by the formatting of the style. It turns out the rule is that when more than 50 percent of the text has some “direct formatting” it is overridden by the style, but if less than that is direct formatted then it is not overridden.

I was probably aware of this odd 50-percent rule when I worked on the Word development team, but I’d long since forgotten it and had to experiment a bit just now to convince myself that Mr. Mendelson was right. I can’t remember any of the discussions of why we decided to do it the way we did, but it is indeed non-intuitive and arbitrary. Applying a style should behave consistently so that users don’t have to guess what to expect: either it should always override any direct formatting, or it should never do so. Better yet, it should be smart about reversing emphasis (italics) in direct formatting when you apply a style to a containing unit. For example, if I had a heading in my paper that read “Prayer in George Herbert’s The Temple” and then I decided to make all my headings italic and applied a heading style with italic in it to that paragraph, I would want “The Temple” to be turned into non-italic, according to the rule in Turabian.

In any event, I enjoyed Mendelson’s likening of Word to Platonism. Very apt. I still think it works fine if you understand it, if you didn’t come from the WordPerfect world which was based on how typewriters worked.

The sentence I liked best in the article was “The original design of Microsoft Word, in the early 1980s, was a work of clarifying genius.” 🙂

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