Three Microsoft Word creature comforts that we take for granted

Albert Liang
Tech Sketches
Published in
4 min readMay 14, 2018

Microsoft Word has tons of little built-in helper functions that we take for granted every day (other than the obvious spelling auto-correct): smart quotes, em/en dashes, and widow fixes.

As much as people like to hate on Microsoft products, life would be much uglier if it weren’t for them. Microsoft Word, in particular, has many subtle “beautification” functions that are constantly making adjustments to your document. We’ve gotten so used to seeing the end result of those tweaks that they’re completely invisible to us now.

Spelling auto-correct is an easy one to recognize and I believe people actively appreciate the value of that function. Today, I want to talk about three other “auto-corrects” that you may or may not have noticed!

Smart close-quotes

When you type a quote (“) in Word, the first instance is actually an open quote (manually created by typing alt-0147) and the second instance is a close quote (alt-0148). The same applies to single quotes (alt-0146 and alt-0147). Imaging having to keep track of and type that manually!

Em dash and en dash

The em dash is a long dash ( — ) is a punctuation mark similar to a comma. It offsets part of a long sentence — allowing you to write more complex sentences. To create an em dash in Word, you type two hyphens in a row without spaces (and also without spaces on either side of the two hyphens).

The en dash is a dash between two numbers — for example, when writing “70–80%”. The en dash is slightly longer than a regular hyphen and slightly shorter than an em dash. To create an en dash in Word, type two hyphens with spaces on either side (70<space><hyphen><hyphen><space>80%).

Technically, neither of these would really be missed if Word didn’t auto-correct them, but it’s a nice touch to make a document look more elegant.

Widow control

An widow (in typographic terms) is a short word or short line at the top of a page. Microsoft Word fixes this by moving the last line of the previous page to the next page — resulting in a two-line beginning to the new page. If you ever wonder why you text “jumps” when you change one little word… it’s probably widow control at work.

Things Microsoft Word doesn’t do

Two things Microsoft Word does not do is orphan control and rag fixes. Orphans are single words on a single line, and rags are excessively jagged-looking text.

A single hyphen fixes the rag!

This is the main difference between Microsoft Word and a more professional typesetting program like Adobe InDesign. Microsoft Word’s dictionary only contains “whole words”, whereas Adobe InDesign’s also contains a hyphenation dictionary, allowing it to insert hyphens to fix rags (like the example above).

Furthermore, everyone knows that text layout in Microsoft Word is a pain in the butt — both tables and columns have bugs that make them unreliable. Adobe InDesign allows you to set precise, rigid columns and is more intelligent about flowing text into those columns (and also flows text around inserted images better).

LaTex — a possible alternative?

If layout control is what you’re looking for, LaTex may be worth a look. LaTex lets you “program” your document (similar to HTML) so you can precisely control where text appears and how it appears.

Example from ShareLaTex

However, what you gain in absolute layout control, you lose in all the other “creature comforts” that both Microsoft Word and Adobe InDesign offer — smart quotes, em/en dashes, and orphan/widow/rag control. LaTex is a much simpler program that gives a user full control of the document.

To use LaTex, I personally recommend using an online program like ShareLaTex.


There’s a reason Microsoft Word is so popular — it covers most people’s use cases. But, if you need to take your document creation to the next level, you’ll find the extra typographical features of Adobe InDesign more useful (but it costs significantly more monetarily). Finally, if you prefer to have absolute control over every aspect of your document, you can check out LaTex. As an added cherry on top, LaTex is the most version-control-friendly of the 3 formats!



Albert Liang
Tech Sketches

Tech junkie, entrepreneur dreamer, practical engineer