MS Word Dumbs Down to Serve the Masses

Posted by VISITOR on Dec 31, 2005 12:29 AM EDT; By Uriel Wittenberg
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MS Word 2003 betrays veteran Word user "upgrading" from Word 2000. At 22, Word has entered a senile phase. It's looking like the next version may need diapers.

How's the world's dominant word processor doing, 6 years into the 21'st century?

I refer of course to one of the Microsoft Corporation's premier offerings, the product known simply as Word — a fittingly uncomplicated designation for the unquestioned ruler of the word processing applications realm.

I recently transitioned from an older version I'd been using, Word 2000, to what is currently the latest, Word 2003[1]. And I'm here to tell you that it is worse, worse, worse!

Progress, forward movement, a heightened alertness and sensitivity to your needs — that's what you expect from an established software product as it continues to mature. At 22[2], however, Word has entered a senile phase. It's looking like the next version may need diapers.

Who am I? Just a Word user of 19 years' standing. And the grievances I report here have generally been vetted on the microsoft.public.word.docmanagement newsgroup, where several "Word MVPs" (Microsoft-designated "Most Valuable Professionals" — see are active.

Same shortcut key for different functions in FIND dialogue box!

Here's a startling piece of sloppiness that a clerk with no technical knowledge could have spotted if only the "worldwide leader in software, services and solutions that help people and businesses realize their full potential"[3] had some kind of Quality Assurance process going.

One of the most elementary functions in a word processor is FIND, which you can use, for example, to find where in a document the word "regression" appears.

Take a look at Word's Edit:Find dialogue:

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Notice that the t shortcut key is used for two different things. If you want the "No Formatting" commandbutton and you press Alt-t, the "Highlight all items found" checkbox will unexpectedly get checked — and the "No Formatting" commandbutton will remain uninvoked.

Press Alt-t a second time, and this time the "No Formatting" commandbutton is invoked. But "Highlight all items found" remains checked. (Pressing Alt-t a third time will uncheck it.)

The duplicate shortcut key problem appears in at least one other dialogue, Tools:Options:View (where Alt-b is used for two different things).

Shortcut keys entirely forgotten!

While the Edit:Find dialogue has a duplicate shortcut key, in another dialogue, the shortcut keys have been entirely forgotten! (Again, a discovery a modest QA clerk could have made.)

Consider first Tools:AutoCorrect:AutoCorrect, a normal dialogue on which shortcut keys (the underlined letters) exist for each item:

dyn 1


Now compare the Tools:AutoCorrect:AutoFormat as you Type dialogue:

dyn 1


There isn't a shortcut key in sight, is there? They simply forgot.

Freedom to Hug Bullets

This degradation from 2000 is of a somewhat different nature since it appears to be deliberate. Microsoft is trying to be more friendly to the masses, who mostly are not computer geniuses and who were therefore quite puzzled in past Word versions by their inability to steer the cursor wherever they wanted in automatically bulleted or numbered lists.

Consider this automatically numbered list:

1. dog
2. cat
3. bird

Now, Word puts that 1, 2, 3 there automatically. That's what automatically numbered list means. If the user inserts or removes items, Word will automatically maintain the numbering to keep it starting at 1 and going up one at a time, up to the last item in the list.

Obviously the user should not be able to move the cursor into the numbers and muck around with them.

And that's exactly what most Microsoft customers don't understand. So in 2003, they're allowed to do it. Hey — the customer is always right. In the list above you can move over to the "2." and if it'll make you happy, just take it out — yes, just delete it, so you get:

1. dog
2. bird

Microsoft can say it's given its customers "freedom to innovate."

Word MVP Cindy Meister, in a newsgroup post, shed some light on what's going on. Responding to my comment (in connection with a different issue) that I didn't know whether "there's something wrong with the way MS listens to customers, or something wrong with the way customers use the product," Cindy wrote:

From my experience, the reason is that Microsoft is trying to "listen" to what their automated statistics gathering tells them is the majority of users. And those are the ones who basically use Word as a fancy typewriter. Powerusers who know what styles are and work with them are in the minority.

If you've been following the discussion on the MS site and in the blogs, you'll have seen that things are moving even more radically away from the traditional Word interface...

Word applies direct format to plain text files

This is another distinct degradation from 2000 to 2003, though in this case I can't decide whether it's inadvertent, or another misguided effort to be friendlier to the technical illiterati.

While Word is typically used to edit Word documents, it can also be used to edit plain text files (whose names often have the ".TXT" extension, e.g. README.TXT).

When a plain text file is opened with Word, Word automatically assigns the "Plain Text" paragraph style to each paragraph, which is perfectly sensible. But 2003, in addition, applies direct character formatting throughout the document so the font is Courier New, regardless of the font specified in the definition of the "Plain Text" paragraph style.

Users who know how to use Word will have defined the "Plain Text" style to use the font they wish. But that tiny sliver of the user base is of no consequence, and Word overrides their wishes.

The hoi polloi don't know what styles are and mostly don't even know the difference between a Word document and a plain text document. They need a definite visual signal, something with impact, to let them know, to give them a clue — and the Courier font is just the thing to get the "Plain Text" idea across.

It's true that the "Plain Text" style is defined by default as using Courier, so those users would normally get the signal anyway, without Word's direct formatting. But with those users, who knows what could happen? They might somehow have accidentally changed the style definition. It's best, Word figures, not to take chances, and make sure they get the message.

Style dialogue degradation

Speaking of styles, consider the Format:Style dialogue:

dyn 1


Notice the "Subtitle" style is highlighted. Now if you invoke the "New..." commandbutton, which style do you suppose the new style should be based on?

If you answered "Subtitle", you're brilliant. Take this gold star and get lost.

Word will base the new style on "Normal" — the style that's most likely appropriate for the surging zombie hordes who would only have highlighted "Subtitle" inadvertently while poking around for the "New..." commandbutton.

The geniuses who used to deliberately highlight a style, by the way, could directly do so in 2000 by typing the first letter of the style name. For example, typing "q" would highlight the first style whose name started with the letter "q". 2003, however, acts dumb, refusing to hazard a guess as to which style the user might desire, so the user has to follow "q" with down-arrow to get the style highlighted.

Unstable Settings

In 2003, unlike 2000, various settings are unstable. Though my preference is to have View:Ruler unchecked, 2003 has its own preferences, and every so often it will spontaneously re-check View:Ruler.

Sometimes 2003 is struck by an impulse to enact one of its preferences in one window even if it contradicts that in another. I had one document I'd saved with a View:Zoom setting of 150%. When I'd reopen it after closing, I could verify the 150% zoom setting (via View:Zoom). But when I'd do Window:New Window, the zoom setting in that window (confirmed via View:Zoom) would be 140%!

Word MVP Suzanne S. Barnhill comments, on the newsgroup:

What I have found about ruler display (and other display settings in Word) is that they appear to be window-dependent. This was not an issue in [previous versions; now, however, it is.] It's very puzzling, and the only way to assure a consistent UI seems to be a set AutoExec, AutoOpen, and AutoNew macros to enforce the desired display....

I have complained about the problem in Word 2002 and 2003.

Old Bugs Gone?

One might hope that all these new defects in 2003 were taking the place of defects from prior versions that were now gone, so the deficiency count would be holding steady. No such luck. The old bugs creep on; Word has sunk.

Edit:Find fails to find!

My trials with that elementary FIND function did not begin with the duplicate shortcut key problem described above. In the year 2003 (when I was using 2000) I announced, on the microsoft.public.word.application.errors newsgroup, what I billed an "Amazing Bug in Search/Replace." In a test file I'd created, a particular search/replace operation I specified succeeded — but only in about 99% of the cases. Of 16,500 occurrences in the document, 16,464 were correctly replaced. The remaining 36 went undiscovered by Word. Responses to my announcement indicated the bug had been around for some time, existing in prior Word versions as well.

This bug continues to thrive in 2003. When I raised it anew in microsoft.public.word.docmanagement, Tony Jollans explained in which circumstances the problem occurs (I later saw that others had done likewise back in 2003). That permits the following simple demonstration of the problem, which any skeptic is invited to carry out:

  • Create a Plain Text file, TEST.TXT, with 255 characters on line 1 and a bit of stuff on lines 2 and 3, by applying the following steps:

    • Copy "123456789 123456789 123456789 " (including the spaces, but not including the quotation marks — so that's exactly 30 characters) to the Windows clipboard.

    • Open a new document in Word.

    • Paste 8 times. You now have 240 characters on line 1.

    • Now copy "123456789 12345" and paste that. You now have 255 characters on line 1.

    • Press ENTER to start line 2.

    • Type "Word".

    • Press ENTER to start line 3.

    • Type "bug".

    • Do File:Save As and save as TEST.TXT, specifying file type Plain Text. If prompted for "text encoding," specify "Windows default."

  • Close the file.

  • Reopen the file (using "Plain Text" if prompted for conversion option).

  • In Tools:Options:View, check "Formatting marks:All" (if it's not already checked) so you can see the end-of-paragraph marks.

  • Do Edit:Find to search for "5^p" (without the quotation marks). "^p", incidentally, is how you represent the end-of-paragraph mark when searching in Word.

Well?? Are you impressed?

"5^p" is right there. You can see it in the window, at the end of line 1. But Word can't see it!

If you search for "d^p", on the other hand, Word will find it (at the end of line 2).

Word disables function vaguely associated with user trouble

Another of Word's misbehaviors falls into the category of misguided attempts to save Word's most muddled users from inevitable pratfalls. (I first saw this problem in 2003, but it reportedly exists in prior versions.) It involves the feature whereby you can update a paragraph style by example. That is, you can directly format a paragraph (e.g., make its alignment centered and its line spacing double), then modify a paragraph style by telling Word to copy the paragraph's formatting into the definition of the style.

This appears to work for any paragraph style except the one named "Normal." Word makes an exception of the Normal style, refusing to allow it to be updated in this way.

"Why?!" I demanded at microsoft.public.word.docmanagement.

Word MVP Suzanne S. Barnhill's response is noteworthy:

Possibly to make it a bit harder for users to do this inadvertently. See for evidence of the havoc this causes.

But the referenced webpage discusses a separate issue — one involving the "automatic update" setting for paragraph styles. (If the setting is on for, say, the "p1" paragraph style, then operations on a p1-style paragraph that would otherwise produce direct formatting instead modify the p1 style. For example, if the user moves the cursor into a particular p1 paragraph and uses Format:Paragraph to make its alignment centered, the action will modify the p1 style definition instead of causing direct formatting to be applied to that paragraph.)

The issue with automatic update is that Word does not make the setting readily apparent, and users who think it's off when it's actually on get unexpected behavior. They do a Format:Paragraph operation intending to change a single paragraph, and suddenly all paragraphs in the document having the same style are changed in the same way.

But what did this have to do with the issue I'd raised? This involved automatic updates of paragraph styles. My issue involved manual updates of paragraph styles. How were these issues connected?

I divined Suzanne's thinking: Word's witless designers, seeking to address a problem of unintended automatic updates, had instead removed the ability to do one kind of manual update — even though manual updates, given that they are explicitly requested by the user, are surely intentional.

Suzanne's explanation of how the lumbering Microsoft had gone about "helping people and businesses realize their full potential" on this issue was more than believable. But she'd merely dropped a hint. I took it upon myself to articulate her insight. There was neither confirmation nor denial when I posted this comment to the newsgroup:

Hi Suzanne,


Word has a problem: the "automatic update" setting for paragraph styles is invisible. So the user doesn't see why the style has changed when all he's tried to do is apply direct formatting. And if other affected paragraphs aren't in the vicinity, he won't even see that it's happened.

Moreover, as you point out at, "it's not entirely clear" how the setting gets turned on in the first place, at least in the case of the Normal style.

But the invisibility of the setting is a problem for all styles, not just Normal, and no doubt confuses many users.

Word's designers could address this in various ways:

  • Best way: un-conceal the setting. Change it so when "automatic update" is on, the user sees it on the Format/Paragraph dialogue (and can get a "?" explanation there and change the setting there). One way to show the setting would be to change the dialogue title from "Paragraph" to "Paragraph Style: 'pricelist'" (or whatever).

  • Bad way: they could kill the "automatic update" feature.

  • Worse way: they could kill the "automatic update" feature for just the "Normal" style, since that causes problems most often.

  • Worst way: they could leave the "automatic update" feature completely untouched (and so do nothing about the real problem), but make it impossible for a user to manually, explicitly, deliberately, tell Word that he wants direct formatting he has already applied to be used to update a style. And, just to be perverse, they could do that for only the "Normal" style, because automatic updates (though not manual updates) cause problems with Normal most often. That way, a feature that usefully works on every other style won't be available for Normal, and users will be a little more perplexed.

If I understand you, you're guessing that last option was the one they pursued to address the problem.

The future?

And thus we head into the fearsome future.

Our species' only hope is better thinking, improved ideas. And language is our vehicle for thought. If Word symbolizes our prospects, we will not be realizing our potential. Not "fully," and not even remotely.

I'd like to express thanks to Cindy, Suzanne, Tony, and others who contributed their advice and expertise.


(Use your browser's BACK function to return to endnote reference above.)

[1]     To be exact, the version I'm discussing is identified in Help:About as: "Microsoft Office Word 2003 (11.6568.6568) SP2". This version incorporates the latest updates from as of now.

[2]     Wikipedia's entry on Word states that "Word's first general release was for MS-DOS computers on May 2, 1983."

[3]     Fast Facts About Microsoft (at

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Small correction golem 0 682 Dec 31, 2005 6:34 AM

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