What are non-printing characters? Why should I see them?

They allow your word processor to tell you how your document layout works.

Know your layout

Earlier this year, someone walked past while I was word processing and noticed my screen was full of odd characters.
Lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne" showing dots between words and symbols at the end of lines

Usually people who notice this go “Aargh!  Hideous!”, but this time the response was “That looks useful”, and it is.  The blue symbols are non-printing characters, and they show why your layout is happening.  As the name implies, they only appear on your screen, not in print, or when you export to PDF.

How do I see them?

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Which word processor should I use?

All of them.

Exploring applications

To fully understand the English language, learn a different but related language.

To fully understand a musical instrument, learn to play both it and some other instrument.

To fully understand your word processor, learn to use a different word processor.

Admittedly, two of these three abilities will gain you more admiration and applause than the third. Don’t let that stop you seeking word processor mastery, however. Although everyone thinks they know how to operate a word processor, all too few people understand it.

Comparing different applications for the same task — even a task as mundane as processing words — offers insights into their design, which may in turn help us use them better.

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What is a word processor?

It’s the class of application that Microsoft Word belongs to.

Generic applications

Sometimes people ask how to get started on some computing job, and I tell them it’s best done in a “word processor”, “spreadsheet” or “presentation package”.  This is often not a helpful answer.  If I have just directed you to this post, it probably didn’t help you, either.

I could have said “Word”, “Excel”, or “PowerPoint”, but I don’t own or use those applications.  Depending on the task, I use LibreOffice or iWork.  I also shop photos in the Gnu Image Manipulation Program or Pixelmator.  (However, even if you own and use Adobe® Photoshop®, Adobe requests than you stop using their trademark as a verb. ((While statements like this are easy to laugh at, current trademark law is what makes it necessary.)))

So, how do we talk about these applications?  By describing what we do with them.  While there are a multitude of document editors, three are the most common by a wide margin:

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What is a file extension? Why does it matter?

It’s part of the filename that tells your computer what the file (probably) contains.

Assigning meaning to numbers

When you save a document, it is stored as a long list of numbers.  You may have heard that “computers can only count ones and zeroes”, and at the lowest level, this is correct.  We can represent those numbers any way we like; here are document contents represented as base 16 (hexadecimal).

D0 CF 11 E0 A1 B1 1A E1 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00

This still isn’t useful.  We want to open the document in an application that displays those numbers in a way that is meaningful to us.  Does anything here tell us which application to use?

Something does, in fact: the name of the file is “Words.xls”.  “Words” is the name I gave it, but the “xls” tells us that it’s a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet.

Why do I need to know this?

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Why do programmers format dates using YYYY-MM-DD?

Because a dictionary sort puts them into the correct order.

Naming documents

We often create multiple documents with the same purpose but for different times.

  • Newsletter 29th October 2010
  • Newsletter 5th February 2011
  • Newsletter 15th April 2011
  • Newsletter 1st July 2011

It is usually good to give such documents a name that includes the date.

Dictionary sorting: the problem

However, when we look at the list of documents, something terrible happens.  On older computers, they will usually be ordered like this:

  • Newsletter 15th April 2011
  • Newsletter 1st July 2011
  • Newsletter 29th October 2010
  • Newsletter 5th February 2011

What went wrong?

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