I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

Read more ...

Blog Search

(Supports AND)

Google Ads


Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

See this post for info on full versus truncated feeds.


The era of blogging, and now Twitter, has turned linguistics into a real-time sport.

Rex Hammock


<July 2017>




Email me

Blog Statistics

First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 7/21/2017

Posts - 2441
Comments - 2554
Hits - 1,968,118

Entries/day - 0.47
Comments/entry - 1.05
Hits/day - 383

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:36 AM Pacific

  03:02 PM

As most people discover, there's a class of writing error that spell check just can't help you with. Consider these examples:
  • We recommend that the company shit its resources for better output.
  • The event is open to the pubic.
Run these through spell check, and all is well. Only, of course, it's not.

As I recently learned, Word has a feature that can help find errors like this: an exclusion list. An exclusion list has words that are spelled perfectly fine, but that should be excluded from your documents.

The steps for creating an exclusion list are described in a great blog post by Sam Hartburn. The basic idea is that you add words, one per line, to .lex files in a specific folder on your computer. Here's the Windows location--see notes later for Mac instructions:

You can use any text editor to edit the file, including Notepad.

Note that there are different .lex files for different languages, and in fact for different flavors of each language—e.g. English US and English GB. (It's not inconceivable that there's a way to set up a global .lex file, but I don't know. Leave a comment if you know about that.)

Once you've got your exclusion list(s) updated, close and then reopen Word. Then when you run the spell checker, Word will flag words that are part of your exclusion list:

The examples I've shown here pertain to, you know, taboo vocabulary. Another excellent use for this feature is to flag words that you often mistype but are technically spelled correctly, such as manger for manager or potion for portion. Or you can use it for terms that should be avoided in your particular work, even if they're perfectly cromulent words in English. Really, you can use the exclusion list feature to have Word bring to your attention any word that you might want to double-check as part of your proofing.[1]

I do have a couple of notes for you about using exclusion lists:
  • Words in the list are case sensitive. (As indeed they are in the Word spelling dictionaries.) For example, it's probably a good idea to include both assed and Assed.

  • It's up to you to include all variant forms of a term, including plurals and verb conjugations: ass, Ass, asses, Asses, assed, Assed, assing, Assing, etc.

  • With regard to having different .lex files for different language variants, it will up to you to know what languages are in use in a given document. If a document has been through many hands, it's possible that different sections or paragraphs or even words might be flagged as having different language settings.
I learned about all this from a Twitter thread and specifically from the editor Ashley Bischoff. Not only did she introduce a bunch of us to exclusion lists by pointing to the blog post, she took the initiative to create a Google Docs spreadsheet for collecting words for potential inclusion. The doc is open to anyone. Please contribute!

PS Ashley has a second sheet in the workbook with instructions for both Windows and Mac users on how to update your exclusion lists.

[1] Microsoft alums will recognize this as similar to the Policheck tool, about which I've written before.

[categories]   , ,

[2] |

  12:24 PM

I rassled a bit recently with a couple of dumb issues when creating some Word macros, so I thought I'd better write these up for my own future reference. To be clear, "dumb" here means that I should already have known this stuff, and I wasted time learning it.

1. Calling subroutines

I was trying to call a sub like this:
Sub SomeMacro
SomeOtherSub(p1, p2)
End Sub
Word got so mad about that SomeOtherSub call:

Turns out that when you call a subroutine in VBA and pass parameters, you do that without parentheses:
SomeOtherSub p1, p2
The parameters can be positional, as here, or named. For the latter, use the := syntax:
SomeOtherSub p1:="a value", p2:="another value" 

2. Exposing subroutines (implicit access modifiers)

Here was another kind of bonehead mistake I made. I wrote a subroutine sort of like this:
Sub MyMacro(param1 As String, param2 As String)
' Code here
End Sub
Then I tried to actually run this macro (Developer > Macros). The macro stubbornly refused to appear in the Macros dialog box. If I was in the macro editor and pressed F5 to try to launch it in the debugger, Word just displayed the Macros dialog box for me to pick which macro to run, but again, did not display the actual macro that I actually wanted to run.

Anyway, long story short (too late, haha), the problem was that the Sub definition included parameters:
Sub MyMacro(param1 As String, param2 As String)
Apparently if a subroutine has parameters like that, VBA considers it to have protected access—it can be called from another macro, but it can't be launched as a main. This makes sense, but it wasn't immediately obvious. What I really wanted was this:
Sub MyMacro()
I had included the parameters by accident (copy/paste error), so it was basically a dumb mistake. I just removed them and then things worked. Well, they worked until VBA ran into the next dumb mistake, whatever that was. (In my code there's always another one.)

[categories]   ,


  02:35 PM

Another quick post about Word, primarily for my own benefit (when I forget this later).

Word has several options for how you can paste text:

They are (in order):
  • Keep Source Formatting. This option keeps the original formatting (both character and paragraph formatting), but converts it to direct formatting.

  • Merge Formatting. This option copies basic character formatting (bold, italics, underline) as direct formatting, but does not copy any paragraph formatting.

  • Use Destination Styles. This option copies the text and applies styles that are in the target document. (This option appears only if there matching styles in the target doc.)

  • Keep Text Only. This option copies the text as plain text, with no formatting.
I need the last one (paste plain text) more often than any of the others, so I want it on a keyboard shortcut. You can do this by recording a macro of yourself using the Keep Text Only option. But I realized there's an even easier way—just assign a keyboard shortcut to the built-in PasteTextOnly command.

I keep forgetting that most anything Word can do has a command. If a gesture requires just one command, you can assign a keyboard shortcut directly to it. Maybe writing this out will help me remember.

Update I added a video!

[categories]   , ,


  12:01 AM

This is another in a series of blog posts about how I configure Microsoft Word, which I add here primarily for my own reference.

I often use the Style pane, and within that pane, I often want to change the styles that are displayed. Sometimes I want to see all the styles; sometimes just the styles that are defined in the current document; sometimes just the styles currently in use.

You can change this display by using a dialog box. In the Styles pane, click the Options link, and then use the dropdown lists to select which styles to display and how they're ordered, like this:

But that can get to be an annoying number of clicks if you're switching between these display options frequently. So, macros to the rescue. I recorded myself making one of these changes, then created a couple of variations to give me the different displays I want. Here are the macros I currently use, where the sub name is (I hope) self-explanatory:
Sub SetStylesPaneToAllAlphabetical()
ActiveDocument.FormattingShowFilter = wdShowFilterStylesAll
ActiveDocument.StyleSortMethod = wdStyleSortByName
End Sub

Sub SetStylesPaneToInCurrentDocument()
ActiveDocument.FormattingShowFilter = wdShowFilterStylesAvailable
ActiveDocument.StyleSortMethod = wdStyleSortByName
End Sub

Sub SetStylesPaneToInUse()
ActiveDocument.FormattingShowFilter = wdShowFilterStylesInUse
ActiveDocument.StyleSortMethod = wdStyleSortByName
End Sub
To complete the picture, I map the macros to these keyboard shortcuts:


[categories]   , ,


  11:13 PM

I just installed Word 2013 and was disappointed to note that some of the long-standing keyboard shortcuts no longer work. For example, I've been using Alt+V,A for years (decades?) to invoke an ancient menu command to toggle between hiding and showing revision marks. Even when they introduced the ribbon and the menus went away, a lot of those old menu-command shortcuts still worked. And some still do; but this particular one no longer does, darn it.

I spent a little while trying to map keystrokes to the show-revision and hide-revision commands in the Review tab. Either I'm not finding them or (as I believe) there's no longer a single command to toggle show/hide of rev marks in the way I've come to rely on.

So, macro time. Using the macro recorder and some editing, I created the following macro and then mapped Alt+V,A to it. Macros are stored in Normal.dotm, so as long as that remains available I should be good. (Right?) However, I'll have to update Normal.dotm on each machine on which I install Word 2013.

Update 2016-03-06: For the "hide revisions" section, I changed wdRevisionsViewOriginal to wdRevisionsViewFinal. This macro always shows the "final" version, but toggles whether rev marks are displayed.

Perhaps there's an easier mapping for this functionality. If this macro thing doesn't work out, I'll investigate further.
Sub ShowOrHideShowRevisions()
If ActiveWindow.View.RevisionsFilter.Markup = wdRevisionsMarkupNone Then
' Hide revisions
With ActiveWindow.View.RevisionsFilter
.Markup = wdRevisionsMarkupAll
.View = wdRevisionsViewFinal
End With
' Show revisions
With ActiveWindow.View.RevisionsFilter
.Markup = wdRevisionsMarkupNone
.View = wdRevisionsViewFinal
.View = wdRevisionsViewOriginal
End With
End If
End Sub

[categories]   , ,


  04:55 PM

This is a blog post just to record the key remappings I do in Microsoft Word 2010. (It is probably not of interest to most people.)

I've found that it speeds up revisions tremendously to map keyboard shortcuts to the commands in Word that you use to find, accept, and reject revisions and comments. As a bonus, I don't like that the traditional Find key in Word 2010 is mapped to some sort of Navigation pane (where traditional Find is available under Advanced Find). So I map Ctrl+F as well. As I say, this is primarily for my own reference.

TaskCommandKey mapping
Display Find/Replace dialog boxEditFindCtrl+F
Find next revision or commentNextChangeOrCommentCtrl+Shift+F
Accept current changeAcceptChangesSelectedCtrl+Shift+A
Reject current changeRejectChangesSelectedCtrl+Shift+R

[categories]   , ,


  12:10 AM

It's always a little startling to me to watch over someone's shoulder when I'm helping them do something in Word. Seeing someone very carefully move the mouse pointer over to the little diskette (!) icon in order to save, or hearing them howl when the computer freezes, or hitting Enter to add a blank paragraph for vertical spacing — well, I think I know how Drivers Ed teachers must feel. So here are a few tips that cannot help but make someone take better advantage of the astounding capabilities of Word. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that these are some of the skills that determine whether you're a power user of Word.

0. Save early and often

This is a sort of pre-tip. Everyone has lost work in Word because Word froze or because the computer locked up. Talk about losing productivity. Learn to do this:
  • As soon as you've created a new document, save it. When it's still blank. Do not wait till you've written "enough."

  • Learn the keyboard shortcuts for saving: Shift+F12, Ctrl+S, and Alt+F,S. (Three of them! Your choice!) This makes it as trivially easy to save.

  • Save every time you pause. Basically, I reflexively save whenever I stop typing.
Adopting these habits does not mean that you'll never, ever lose work. But the amount of work you'll lose is measured in minutes (or seconds), not hours.

1. Learn keyboard shortcuts

Using the mouse slows you down. There, I said it. In fact, I'm going to say that most anything you do in Word using the mouse, I can probably do faster using the keyboard. Tips:
  • Word has tons and tons of built-in keystrokes for commands that are on the ribbon, status bar, etc. (list, list, more lists ...)

  • Many (most?) of the keyboard shortcuts that defined menu paths in Word 2003 and earlier (e.g., Alt+F,S to save) still work in ribbon-based versions of Word. (See also: Instructions on how to use the keyboard with the ribbon.)

  • You can map and remap any arbitrary keystroke to any command in Word. The only real trick is in knowing which of the hundreds of commands you need. (Instructions; don't forget to click Assign.)

  • You can record macros (see below) and map them to a keystroke.
Really, there's no excuse not to have a large repertoire of keystrokes for commands that you use all the time.

2. Learn to work with "hidden" characters on

Word can display characters that aren't normally visible, including spaces, tabs, and paragraphs marks. (And a few others.) Like this:

It's incredibly useful to know where these characters are. For example, it's a way to solve problems with weird formatting; is that blank space between two paragraphs the result of a paragraph-formatting setting or just a stray paragraph mark? Is that two spaces after that period or just one? Is there a tab in front of that paragraph or just spaces? For another example, because paragraph formatting is also "stored" in the "paragraph mark," being able to copy a paragraph mark and paste it elsewhere proves to be an easy to way to transfer formatting.

People unused to these marks find them distracting. Two pieces of advice. One is that it's possible to get used to them. (I almost always work with those characters showing.) Two is that you can easily toggle them off and on using Ctrl+Shift+8.

3. Learn to work with revision marks

Revision marks and comments are one of the crowning glories of using Word as an authoring tool. (In contrast to editing HTML directly, for example.) You should know how to do this:
  • Use Ctrl+Shift+E to turn revisions on and off. (Equivalent of Review tab > Track Changes > Track Changes [On|Off])

  • Use Alt+V,A to hide and show revision marks. (Equivalent of Review tab > Final)

  • Set your name/initials so that comments that you add include your ID.

4. Learn how to format correctly

(I'm a little hesitant about the term "correctly" here, but I'll go with it.) If you want blank spaces between paragraphs, the olde-tyme, typewriter-like way to do it is to insert a blank paragraph, i.e., an extra return. The preferred way to do it, however, is to format the paragraph to include extra space before and/or after:

Similarly, the way to indent a paragraph is not to use a tab, but to set its indentation (or its first-line indentation):

Doing things the typewriter way just means someone (perhaps you) is going to have to go in there and clean up the mess later, when someone decides that nope, you want different spacing in the document. Or no spacing. (Tip: Search for ^p^p and replace it with ^p)

In both cases, and others like this, the really correct way to do this is to create a style that has the characteristics you need and apply that (see below). However, to use styles effectively, you do need to have a good grasp of how to use the formatting features of Word.

5. Learn to use styles

One of the changes introduced with the ribbon in Word 2007 was to put styles right in your face — in fact, to make them as prominent as other formatting options:

This is good, because, basically, you should use styles instead of manual font or paragraph formatting. I have belabored the many advantages of using styles before, but here's a summary:
  • Formatting cleanliness.
  • Ease of global changes.
  • Reusable formatting within and between documents.
  • Semantic tagging of content (searchable by style).
When I teach the styles class, I tell the students that if they intend to share a document or reopen it later — ever — they should use styles. Unless you're writing a letter to your mother, use styles. If you're creating anything in Word that has a professional purpose — memo, report, documentation, term paper, book manuscript, resume — use styles.

Some tips and things to know about styles:
  • Style definitions can "cascade", via the Style based on settings when you create a new style:

    For example, if you create a new style based on Normal, and then you change the font for Normal, the font for the new style will change as well. Very powerful feature.

  • Ctrl+Shift+S opens the Apply Styles window. This lets you apply styles easily using the keyboard. (Creating a style name alias, such as "n" for Normal) can really speed the process of applying the style.)

  • Alt+Ctrl+Shift+S opens (actually, toggles) the Styles pane.

  • You can copy a paragraph style by copying the paragraph mark for that paragraph. (Obviously, you must show hidden characters as described above.)

  • You can assign keyboard shortcuts to styles.

  • Word can mark formatting consistencies (for example, characters formatting manually instead of via a style) using a blue squiggly line.

  • When you create or modify a style, you can save the definition either in the current document or in the Normal template (somewhat coyly referred to as New documents based on this template). Saving them in the Normal template means that the style is available for every document you work with. (More on the Normal template below.)

  • You can copy styles from other Word docs or templates by using the Organizer. (See also: official documentation.)

  • You can search, apply, and modify styles using macros. (See below.)
Combine styles with the Normal template (see next point), and you already have saved yourself hours of work in formatting your documents.

There are many tutorials: here's a sampling. Or if you're in the Seattle area, come take our class. :-)

6. Understand how to use the Normal template

The Normal template (Normal.dotm in the %APPDATA%/Microsoft/Templates folder) is the global repository for styles and macros for your copy of Word. The fundamental thing to understand, productivity-wise, is that Normal.dotm is always attached to your current document. And, of course, you can use the Normal template to define a layout and default formatting for any documents that you create for which you don't specify an alternative template. Things you should know:
  • Macros are stored in the template.

  • You can save new styles in the Normal template, and thereafter they're always available — use the New documents based on this template settings (see previous).

  • You can modify the styles in the Normal template, which constitutes a global change to that style. Don't like Word 2011's default font of 11-point Calibri for Normal? Change it permanently in the Normal template. Want to add an alias for Heading 1, or change the font or size? Do it in Normal.

  • You cannot remove base styles, like Normal, Heading 1-9, etc. However, you can remove styles that you yourself have added to Normal.

  • If you manage to corrupt or delete Normal.dotm, Word will auto-magically create a new one that has Word's default settings in it. (Altho of course any custom changes or macros you had added to the previous version will be gone.)

7. Learn to use macros

Macros are for automating tasks in Word. Virtually everything you do in Word — type, format, save, search, etc. — is implemented under the covers by executing Word commands, and macros let you string together these commands together to carry out complex and/or repetitive tasks. Basically, if you find yourself doing something repeatedly — especially in more than one document — you should create a macro.

Macros are written in the programming language called VBA ("Visual Basic for Automation"). This isn't a hard language to learn; the trick is actually in understanding the Word object model — the objects that you manipulate in order to insert text, move three paragraphs down, find all words that contain a particular string, or whatever. This is not a trivial task, I will readily acknowledge. Still, every power user of Word should be comfortable working with macros, to wit:
  • You should understand how to record macros, which is a simple way to string together the commands without knowing how to program. And it doubles as a very effective learning tool for understanding how to program Word.

  • You should understand how to open the macro editor and paste in macro code that someone else wrote. IOW, you should know how to add a macro to your document or template.

  • You should understand how to map a macro to a keystroke. (See earlier.)
For more info, search for Word macros.

More Reading

I hope this has been helpful. If you need some more info, try these sources:

[categories]   , ,


  08:55 AM

As I’ve noted before, when spelling-checker software gets attention, it’s because something went wrong. And I’ve also noted before that lots of people think that spelling checkers, and the spelling checker in Word in particular, are not very good.

That isn’t me. I use the spelling checker[1] in Word all the time. In fact, even if I’m writing something in some other editing tool, and even if that tool has a spelling checker, I will often copy the content to a Word document and run the spelling checker there. (This is especially true when I work with HTML documents.) When I found myself doing that again recently, I thought I should sort out why exactly I find it so useful. So here are some thoughts on why the spellchecker in Word works so well for me personally. (As they say, YMMV.)

It’s overwhelmingly right. I am in fact a wretched typist. One of the reasons that this isn’t quite as obvious as it might be is that Word finds the two or three words per sentence that I’ve mistyped and scolds me. People like to harp on cases where Word misses a misspelling (10 Common Errors “Spell Check” Won’t Catch [2]) or suggests some absurd replacement for a misspelled word ("Cupertinos"). But realistically, the percentage of times that Word is right versus these oddball cases has got to be in the high 90th percentile.[3]

It works both in real time and in batch mode. By default, Word flags misspelled words as you type. (You can disable this if you don’t like it.) You can also press F7 and invoke the spelling checker at any time, which you can use to check with the whole document or the current selection—see also next point. I rely on both modes heavily.

It starts checking from where the insertion point is in the document. Some batch-mode spelling checkers always start at the beginning of the document (or selection). In long documents, this is actually quite annoying.

It can check multiple languages. When I was taking Spanish and had to write for class, I found that the spelling checker not only could proof Spanish, but that Word would auto-detect the language of a document or even paragraph, if I was alternating languages. (Proofing my Spanish homework caught a heck of a lot of errors, let me tell you.)

It’s reasonably smart about matching the capitalization of words it fixes. When it suggests replacement words, Word tries to match the case of the error it's found:

This isn't perfect by any means, but it's often right.

It lets you edit both the word and its context live in the spell-check dialog box. In the Spelling and Grammar dialog box, the error is displayed in context in an editable window. Your choice for a fix isn't just what it suggests, and you're not limited to correcting just the misspelled word -- you get a useful snippet of the word's context to edit.

It distinguishes words by case that you've added to the dictionary. This is both a plus and a minus, actually, but on the whole, it's a better-safe-than-sorry plus. I've added a lot of product names and programming keywords to my custom dictionary. These are almost always case-sensitive, so it's helpful that Word finds casing errors in these terms:

The spell-checking dialog box isn’t modal. This one is big for me. When the Spelling and Grammar dialog box is open, you can click back in the document and edit there. (In many spelling checkers, you have to close the dialog box in order to return to the document and fix something.) This is useful to me if the spelling check has either found something too complicated to fix in its live-edit box, or if Word has uncovered some other, non-spelling-related error that I want to fix right now.

You can disable it by style. Another big one for me. I constantly work with documents that have long code examples or HTML listings, both of which contain many oddball words that aren’t normal English. When I spell-check the document, it's tedious to Ignore my way through these and it's dangerous to choose Ignore All for these weird terms. I can pop out of spelling checker dialog box (see previous point), skip over the code examples, and resume at the next bit of real text (see different previous point). This helps, but is still a little tedious. The best solution is to define a Word style and apply it to that text. Then as part of that style, you can tell Word to ignore it for purposes of spell checking:

I suppose an even more ideal solution here would be to be able to tell Word that the text is code or HTML, and then have Word somehow be able check the spelling in that context. HTML editors like Expression Web use spell-check-type flagging to mark unrecognized HTML keywords; Visual Studio can find both bad HTML and bad code:

As I say, nice to have, though not of course a mainstream scenario for the spelling checker in Word.

Admittedly, I spend more time in Word than most people, and my job involves some spell-checking challenges that probably aren't that widespread. Still, I think that the combination of spell-check smarts in Word and the way they've implemented the check is better than anything else I've used.

What other spelling checkers do you love?

[1] There's a discussion to be had here about terminology. Nouns: Spell-check? Spell check? Spelling check? Spell-checker? Spelling checker? Verb: To spell-check? To check spelling? Etc.

[2] Why the scare quotes, do you think?

[3] I have no actual numbers, sorry.

[categories]   , , ,

[1] |

  05:59 PM

You can hardly swing a dead linguist without getting opinions -- negative ones, of course -- about the quality of advice offered by spelling and grammar checking in Microsoft Word. Here's a sample from Geoff Pullum:
But she is wise to the extraordinarily bad advice Word gives on spelling and grammar, and firmly resisted what could have been one of the worst cupertinos in the history of philosophy.
The issue with linguists (and editors) and Microsoft Word is that they focus on what we in our business call "edge cases." Submit to Word a term that's been so misspelled that it's not clear what was intended, or submit a particularly tricky grammar issue to it, and it might respond with an incorrect suggestion. So obviously the tool is useless. (Or, um, "extraordinarily bad.") The fact that Word catches 98+ percent of the bad spellings and grammar issues[1] that it encounters is never remarked on. It's not very interesting when a tool just does what it's supposed to do.

Me, I am highly dependent on these tools because in fact they do find all sorts of junk. (More spelling errors than grammar errors, but some of each.) And sure, it isn't always right, but that's why there's an editor. (Me.) Even so, it impressed me today. Here's something I wrote; for the highlighted word, do you know whether it's right?
When I get the nod from Bill, or from whoever he delegates the decision to, I’ll make the updates.

Word did. :-)

I will admit that it isn't always (as my wife likes to say) buttercups and roses. Here's a grammar-checker boo-boo from the Fail blog:

I verified this in Microsoft Word 2010. Left as an exercise to the reader, I guess, is to try to figure out what Word was thinking.

[1] All statistics presented here are works of fiction and are provided for entertainment purposes only.

[categories]   , ,

[3] |

  04:00 PM

Question posted internally today: how come the spelling checker in Word 2007 allows both measureable and measurable? Dictionaries prefer the spelling without -e-, and the rules (as I read them) in our own style guide say to drop the interstitial e. That most democractic of aribters, Google, favors measurable by a whopping 50:1.

In Word 2003, incidentally, measureable is considered an error:

Someone from the proofing tools team responded to this query (thus the advantages of being able to post these questions) and said that the linguists who make these kinds of judgements might have decided that it was an acceptable variant. He made the interesting observation that they get a lot of requests to be more "Google-like" and favor common usage over authorities. Or, he said, they might have goofed up (with further notes about algorithmic possibilities).

Either way, he did note that if that no-good, slacker spelling checker is letting stuff thru that you don't approve of, you can add words to an exclude list (a blacklist, I guess). Instructions here.

PS. I'm just dying to know if you found the stray -e- in this post. :-)

[categories]   , , ,

[3] |