Doing it with Styles

Doing it with Styles

I blogged earlier about one of the more subtle href="">problems
we created when we decided to allow paragraph styles to take on character
formatting—a decision made very early in Word’s history. In that post, I
gave a very basic description of how styles work, but some of the comments
suggest that a few folks would benefit from a more thorough description of how
styles work. Also, Nate wants to know more about the work we did in Word 2004
to make using styles much easier, so I’ll describe the differences between Word
X and Word 2004 near the end of this post. I’ll also give some tips about ways
to define or modify styles.

Word has two basic types of styles: paragraph and character. For Word
2004, we added table and list styles a la Word XP for Windows. Other than note
that table and list styles exist, I’ll not discuss them in this post. I’ll
talk a bit about character styles, and when you might want to use them, but you
can’t use Word without using paragraph styles. For the sake of brevity, I’ll
often drop the word “paragraph” when talking about paragraph styles or styles
in general. When I mean to talk about character styles in particular, I’ll
refer to them as “character styles.”

Try this: start up Word, select “Styles…” from the Format menu, select
“Heading 1” in the list of style names, then click the “Modify…” button. At
this point, you’re staring at the New/Modify Style dialog box. The dialog box
is pretty much the same whether you’re defining a new style or modifying an
existing style, with only minor behavioral differences depending on which task
you’re performing. The top part of that dialog box has the style’s name, its
type, the style that style is based on and the style of the following paragraph
(i.e. what style will be applied to the new paragraph when you place the
insertion point at the end of an existing paragraph and hit the <return>

The “Based on” style is important to understanding how styles work. Take a
look at the style’s description near the bottom of the dialog box. For the
“Heading 1” style, you’ll see that the description begins with “Normal +”.
This means that the “Heading 1” style contains all of the formatting of the “Normal”
style plus any of the formatting that’s been applied to the “Heading 1” style
(the rest of the description after the “+” sign). Note that the style listed
in the “Based on” dropdown control is also the “Normal” style.

You can base a style definition on any other style. For example, you can
create a new style based on the “Heading 1” style. This new style will contain
all of the formatting of the “Normal” style, all of the formatting of the “Heading
1” style and any direct formatting that you apply to this new style. We refer
to this linkage between styles as the “based-on chain,” and base styles are
known as being “below” the styles based on them. In this example, “Normal” is
below “Heading 1” in the based-on chain, and our new style is above the “Heading
1” style in this particular based-on chain.

Because the formatting of a style inheres to any style that’s based on it,
changing the base style also changes the styles above it in the based-on chain.
For example, if you change the alignment of the “Normal” style from “left” to “right,”
then all the “Heading” styles will become right-aligned. You can experiment
with this a bit to see how it works. In Word, select “Styles…” from the Format
menu. In the “List” dropdown, select “All Styles.” Scroll to the top of the
list, select “Body Text” and click the “Modify…” button. Change its alignment
to “Justified,” note the style description, then click “OK”. Back in the “Styles”
dialog box, select “Styles in Use” in the “List dropdown”. Select “Normal” in
the style list, then click the “Modify” button. Change the alignment of the
Normal style to “Justified,” then click “OK”. Back in the “Styles” dialog box,
select “Body Text” in the list of style names, and note the style description.

In Word X (or 98 or 2001), you change the style’s alignment by clicking on
the “Format” dropdown in the New/Modify Style dialog box, selecting “Paragraph…”
in the list, selecting “Justified” in the Alignment dropdown, and clicking “OK”
in the “Format Paragraph” dialog box. Yuk. You have to go three dialogs deep
just to change a paragraph style’s alignment. I’ll talk about how much easier
this is in Word 2004 a bit later. We still have a bit more to understand about
the based-on chain.

In order to save space, Word doesn’t store the entire set of all possible
character and paragraph properties with a style definition. Word actually
stores the differences between the style’s definition and the formatting of the
style that it’s based on. In the case of styles that have no base style (like
the “Normal” style), Word stores the differences between the style’s definition
and what’s known as “standard” character and paragraph formatting. You can
actually see this when you look at the description of the “Normal” style.
Users can’t change the definitions of these standard property sets, nor would
you want to. If you could, then your document’s eventual formatting would
change depending on which version of Word you used to open the file.

Word goes through, essentially, a three step process to fetch the formatting
for any run of text. It starts with standard character and paragraph
formatting. Word then walks the based-on chain of paragraph styles, starting
at the base of the chain and moving upward, applying the differences that are
stored between each link in that chain. If the run of text also has a
character style applied, then Word walks the based-on chain for that character
style starting with “Default Paragraph Font” (which is the character style
equivalent of the “Normal” paragraph style). Lastly, Word then adds any direct
formatting that you’ve applied to the text independent of any style (i.e. when
you just select some text and apply “Bold” to it).

It’s important to understand that style properties are applied as
differences relative to the style below it in the based-on chain. To see why,
try this in Word: select “Style…” from the Format menu, and click “Heading 1”
in the list of style names. Note that the description says that the font is
bold. Now, select “Normal” in the list of style names, click the “Modify…”
button and change the font to bold (in Word X, select “Character…” from the “Format”
dropdown, etc.). Click “OK” in the New/Modify Style dialog box to get back to
the Style dialog box, select “Heading 1” in the list of style names. Note that
the description now says that the font is “Not Bold.”

This may seem like somewhat strange behavior in that “Bold” becomes “Not
Bold” without a direct change to the “Heading 1” style, but it makes sense if
we think of styles as marking structure rather than formatting. For example,
it’s rather common to use italics for emphasis, particularly within quotes.
The problem, however, is that the formatting for emphasis depends on context.
In a paragraph where the underlying formatting is already italics, emphasis is
created by turning italics off. By storing style properties as differences
(and applying them as differences), then a character style that signifies emphasis
can do the Right Thing relative to the formatting of the underlying style of
the paragraph. And, in fact, Word has a built-in character style named “Emphasis”
that does exactly what I’ve described. Word also has a built-in character
style, called “Strong” that does the same thing for bold.

While it’s important to understand that style properties are stored as
differences, it’s also important to understand the order in which Word handles
styles and direct formatting. The Emphasis character style will help to
illustrate the point. When you apply direct formatting, Word actually goes
through and toggles properties like bold or italics after having gone through
and built up existing formatting as I’ve described above. However, the actual
direct formatting is stored as absolute values after the differences have been
determined. To see how this works, type a paragraph of text in a blank
document. Select the paragraph, and apply italics using Cmd-I. Now select a
few words within that paragraph, and apply the “Emphasis” character style. Note
that the text remains italicized. Undo both the style and the italics. Now,
reverse the order. Select a few words within the paragraph, apply the “Emphasis”
character style, select the whole paragraph, and apply italics using Cmd-I.
Note that the text that has the “Emphasis” style applied is now not italicized
while the rest of the text is.

From all of this, we can come to a general rule for using styles. Type up
your document using styles to mark structure (headings, emphasis, strength,
etc.). Ignore formatting for now. Just concentrate on what you’re saying and
think about formatting later. Once you’ve finished writing the content, then
go through and change the formatting to suit the look you want. Change style
definitions first, being mindful of the based-on chain, and apply any direct
formatting last.

Some of you are wondering what you can do to save all of these style changes
so that you can use them in other documents. That’s a discussion for another
post on styles, templates and the “Organizer…” button. To get a head start,
though, you can search for “copy styles” in Word’s online help.

Armed with an understanding of how styles work, we can now look at ways to
define and modify styles. As we saw above, in order to change common
properties, like font name, font size or paragraph alignment, in Word X and
earlier, you have to drill down three dialogs deep, and you have to drill into
two different dialog boxes in order to change both paragraph and character
formatting. Well, that’s not entirely true. In Word X, it’s very easy to define
a new style by example. Just create a paragraph, apply the formatting you want
directly (including the style that you want your new style to be based on), and
click “New…” in the Format/Style… dialog box. The new style will automatically
have the current paragraph style as its base, and any direct formatting that
you’ve applied will automatically be applied to the new style as differences
from the base style.

In Word, you can also redefine a style by example, but it doesn’t always
work. To do this, you first apply the style you want to modify, then you apply
the changes you want to make directly to the paragraph. Having done that, if
you re-apply the style, Word will notice that the paragraph already has that
style, and will ask if you want to reapply the style or modify the style’s
definition. As I said, however, this doesn’t always work. You can have Word
automatically redefine styles as you make changes, but this feature should
really be left to those who know what they’re doing.

In Word 2004, we made applying and modifying styles quite a bit easier,
particularly for common style properties. The changes we made are based on the
changes done for Word XP for Windows. The New/Modify Style dialog box now has
a “Formatting” section that includes the same toolbar controls that you would
use to change those properties directly. These include font name, size, bold,
italics single underline for character properties, and the common alignment and
spacing buttons for paragraph properties.

Where Win Word XP used their task pane to provide some direct access to
styles and formatting, we did essentially the same thing by creating a new “Styles”
pane on the Formatting Palette. For those of you familiar with Win Word XP,
the controls, and their behavior, on the formatting palette in Word 2004 are
almost identical to the controls, and their behavior, in the “Styles and
Formatting” task pane of Win Word XP. This includes a “Current style of
selected text” control that shows the style plus any direct formatting that’s
been applied (as much as is possible in the space that’s available) and a
button that will select all runs of text that have the same formatting as the
current selection.

There’s also a “New…” button that takes you directly to the New/Modify Style
dialog box without having to go through the Format/Style… dialog box. Lastly, there’s
a list of available styles, and each item in the list is a drop-down menu that
includes things you can do to, or with, that style. Another nice touch is that
tooltips for individual items in the list of styles will show the complete
style description as would be displayed in the Format/Style… dialog box. My
only personal complaint is that the Style’s pane is always closed at startup,
but that’s more my personal style. With all the panes that are on the
formatting palette, it’s difficult to decide which ones should be open and
which closed on startup. (We’ve already made the suggestion to remember pane
states when quitting Word, but that work is largely in the hands of the Office
Core development team and is dictated by their schedule and priorities, not

For my money, the new styles UI alone is worth the upgrade to the new
version of Word, but I’m biased. You see, I did all of the work to
implement the new styles UI.



Comments (8)

  1. Kirk McPIke says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. I live in Word, as a writer, and really appreciate the power and flexibility of the program. When I finally figured out what "styles" were a few years ago, it totally opened the program up for me. Now I understand them even better — thanks!

    I love Office 2004, by the way. Entourage, in particular, is greatly improved. Though I wish that it could host Word directly as its email editor, like Outlook does on Windows. I appreciate having Word’s toolset available, and I find writing the email in a Word document and then selecting Send to Recipient (as HTML) to be a bit cumbersome. It doesn’t feel like writing email, so it breaks my flow, I think.

    But I understand that Entourage is a world unto itself, and that the fact that the programs work as well together as they do is already something of a technical miracle.

    Thanks again! All these fascinating, insider-look tech blogs are the best thing to come out of Microsoft in years.

  2. Corentin says:

    Rick, thanks a lot for this great post on Styles in Office 2004. The MacBU team has made a great job on styles in Word 2004. I know way too many people who use Word on a daily basis with no idea of what styles even are. I hope these great improvements in the usability of this feature will finally get them to use styles (and make my life easier when I have to work on their files after them once they’ve messed up all the styles :-< ).


  3. Paul Berkowitz says:

    Excellent article. I haven’t quite worked out the logic of why applying Emphasis style to a few words within an italicized paragraph leaves them italicized instead of removing italics, but I still found the example and counter-example fascinating. I really like the easy access o styles in the Formatting Palette. Congratulations.

  4. Betalogue says:

    MS blogger and MacBU developer Rick Schaut has a new blog entry on styles in Microsoft Word for Mac.

    It’s an interesting read, especially for people who already use (or

  5. Bloggable says:

    We’ve all heard the phrase before. Repeat it with us: ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’ As if Wes Meltzer’s column on that topic isn’t enough on its own, he has more blogosphere goings-on to reprt: Cocoa and Carbon history, Palm’s support (or lack thereof?) for the Mac, iSync liberation, platform expatriation, Word 2004, and OS X’s interface.

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