Working with Hidden Characters in Microsoft Word

NOTE: Clicking on the images will open them at full size in a new screen. 

Last fall, I was teaching Argument for Scientists and Keys to Effective Editing in field offices throughout California when I discovered a strange error in my training materials. Several of my sample paragraphs were lacking spaces between sentences.

The error was ironic because the lesson on paragraphing came just after a heated discussion about the standard number of spaces between sentences. I felt compelled to reassure my students that no irony was intended, as indeed it was not.

I had copied the writing samples from Adobe into Word, and then back into Adobe. The spaces were present in the Word documents but not in the Adobe versions. One student suggested clearing all formatting, which was a good suggestion, and something I routinely do as a best practice.

You can do this in a couple of different ways. First, you can select the copied text in Word and press the “Clear All Formatting” button on your Home ribbon. 

Clear all formatting

Clear all formatting.


Second, you can set Word to clear formatting automatically when you copy and paste text into your document by selecting the arrow beneath Paste on the Home ribbon, selecting “Set Default Paste,” and then manipulating the dropdown settings for “Cut, copy, and paste.”

Set Default Paste

Set default paste.

Dropdown settings for Cut, copy and paste

Dropdown settings for “cut, copy and paste.”

A few months later, quite by accident, I discovered that the little character causing all the trouble was called a nonbreaking space. This character tells Microsoft Word to keep consecutive words together on the same line of text and is used in web content to keep linked text from breaking across lines. You can insert nonbreaking spaces by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Spacebar. Nonbreaking spaces appear in reveal formatting mode as a symbol similar to the degree symbol (see below).

Writers can also choose to use nonbreaking hyphens, which work just like nonbreaking spaces to keep hyphenated text on the same line. NOTE: While the nonbreaking space can be seen in reveal formatting mode, the nonbreaking hyphen cannot. It is indistinguishable from a regular hyphen (see below).

Another hidden character that has given me trouble from time to time is the manual line break. You can see the manual line break in reveal formatting mode as a line+arrow (see below).

Microsoft Word allows you to control the amount of space between both lines and paragraphs, but many other programs automatically insert a larger amount of space when you hit enter than if you allow the line of text to wrap by itself. If you are using bullet points or entering an address line, manual line breaks can save you valuable screen space. Most programs allow you to insert a manual line break by hitting Shift+Enter.

You can see all of hidden characters when you turn reveal formatting on.

Reveal Formatting

Reveal formatting.

Here’s how each of the characters mentioned in this post look in the text.

Hidden Characters in Text

Hidden characters in text.

You can also replace each of these hidden characters, using the following special characters:

  • Nonbreaking space: ^s
  • Nonbreaking hyphen: ^~
  • Manual line break: ^l

What characters have tripped you up over the years? Which ones have become indispensable? We’d love to learn from your experience!

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