Microsoft Word does a lot of things automatically, and it does them by default.
Some of these interventions are welcome. If you’re writing more than a few words, it’s nice when you don’t have to stop for every typo or to add an apostrophe or apply caps to a letter that you missed. And if you use smart quotes, you’ll definitely need some help.
But to a copyeditor, Word’s meddling can be dangerous. Copyeditors are hired to turn an author’s final manuscript into a document that’s ready to publish, right down to the last character.
For those of us who get a thrill from life’s nuances, copyediting can be a rewarding job—until a mistake makes it into a published piece that you supposedly edited.
What We Don’t Want
Copyeditors generally don’t want anything we haven’t specifically asked for.
That means we don’t want a “(c)” in an enumerated list turning into a copyright symbol.*
Nor do we want to capitalize the first letter of the first word in a table cell—sometimes, yes, but not in every last case.
And the French preposition dont in the original-language quotation that we’re trying to add per the author’s handwritten instructions? Please, don’t change it to the English contraction.
Undo—possibly the greatest innovation in the history of computing—will fix most of these things as soon as they happen. But that strategy works only if your attention never lapses, and it requires an extra step.
How It Works, and Why That Matters for Editors
When Word’s AutoCorrect options are turned on, they work in one of two ways:
- By making changes as you type. This means that a “(c)” will turn into a “©” as soon as you enter the closing parenthesis. Or a new paragraph starting with “1.” will gain an indent and become the first item in an automatically numbered list (like this one)—as soon as you hit the space bar. And quotation marks—they’ll go from straight to curly so fast you probably won’t even notice.
- By making changes all at once. This happens only when you specifically launch the AutoFormat command, which is safely hidden in the deeper recesses of the program (see below).
AutoCorrect goes to work only after some form of input from the user. So you don’t need to worry about simply opening a Word document—even on a computer with different AutoCorrect options. Nothing bad will happen.
But you do need to worry about any change you make to the document, no matter how minor: just hitting the space bar can trigger an automatic correction. In fact, whenever you put your cursor into a document and start typing, AutoCorrect can take over.
Though Word’s AutoCorrect options are turned on by default in a brand-new installation, it’s easy to disable them. Every editor who works in Word should review all of the options at least once and decide which ones to turn off.
Here I will describe my own approach; yours may be different, depending on how you work.
Open Word and navigate to the AutoCorrect options. In recent versions of Word, you can get there from File > Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect Options.†
There are several categories of options to pay attention to. Each category is a separate tab in the AutoCorrect dialog box.
Under the AutoCorrect tab, I keep two boxes checked in the first set of options, as follows:‡
That first option is designed to override you when you hold the Shift key down a moment too long. And it’s smart enough to ignore “TVs” or “PCs” or “UChicago”; in fact, it will ignore any term that’s in Word’s dictionary as typed (like the first two) or not in Word’s dictionary in another form (like the last one)—or any term that you’ve added as an exception. But it will fix a typo like “THis” or “CHicago.”
aS FOR THE CAPS LOCK PROBLEM . . . 🙃
As you can see, I keep the other three options unchecked.
The option to capitalize the first word of a sentence isn’t quite smart enough. You can edit a list of exceptions to ensure that the period in an abbreviation like “ibid.” doesn’t trigger a capital letter in the middle of a sentence. But then when the same abbreviation occurs at the end of a sentence, you still won’t get a capital letter.
As for the names of days, I’ve often had to edit quotations that feature unusual capitalization. I feel better knowing that none of my edits will trigger unwanted capital letters.
Following those options is one called Replace text as you type, which determines AutoCorrect behavior for a huge list of terms:
I keep that box unchecked—which, I know, pretty much defeats most of what AutoCorrect does.
A lot of people like this feature and not only keep it on but customize it to add their own corrections to the list while removing others. For example, I would remove the entry that replaces “dont” with “don’t.”
Others rely on it for words or phrases they use all the time. For example, I could tell it to replace “CM!” (a combination of characters unlikely to appear in real life) with “The Chicago Manual of Style”—et voilà.
But there are so many terms to manage, and I don’t look forward to surprises. Instead, I play it safe and rely on Word’s red squiggly underlines to tell me, for example, when “suprise” should be “surprise” (one of the many terms that populate the default list).
AutoFormat As You Type
For this tab, too, I play it safe, checking only the first box (under Replace as you type):
In my job, “smart quotes” are required—and they apply to apostrophes too—so I keep that option checked. I’m prepared, however, to intervene—for example, to force an apostrophe rather than a left single quotation mark at the beginning of an expression (e.g., ’90s).
Some editors prefer to keep the option to replace internet and network paths with hyperlinks. These links can be handy as you edit, and you can always remove them later on if you need to.**
The rest I can do without. Each one can be handled on a case-by-case basis (sometimes with the help of a keyboard shortcut) or with Find and Replace (using wildcards if needed).
Under Apply as you type I uncheck all the boxes. Some people will find it handy to keep the ones for bulleted and numbered lists, but I don’t. A list isn’t always a list, and when I need the formatting, it’s just a button away. Same thing with tables or borders or built-in heading styles: when I need those, they’re just a click away.
Likewise, under Automatically as you type I don’t have any use for the list-formatting option; if I want items to begin with a bold or italic term, I’ll apply bold or italics as needed. But the option to set indents with tabs and backspaces can be helpful, and some editors will prefer to keep that one checked. As for the last option, “Define [read “Apply”] styles based on your formatting,” I keep that box unchecked. The last thing I want is for Word to apply styles without my permission.
AutoFormat: The Nuclear Option
Warning: AutoFormat isn’t the same thing as AutoFormat As You Type.
In my opinion, AutoFormat shouldn’t even be included as a tab in the dialog box along with the other AutoCorrect categories. Because instead of applying corrections as you type—and unless you select only a portion of the text—it makes changes to the whole document all at once.
Fortunately, you can’t get to AutoFormat by accident. To use it at all, you have to either know the shortcut key (an obscure combination that I would recommend unlearning if you happen to know it) or add a button to the Quick Access Toolbar.
If you choose to add it to the toolbar, I’d advise you to add the command AutoFormat… (with an ellipsis) as opposed to AutoFormat Now. That will put a layer between you and the power to change thousands of little things inadvertently with one click. (Undo is your friend in this case, but accidents happen.)
AutoFormat can be a good option in limited scenarios. For example, you might use it as a preliminary cleanup tool on a very rough draft. Or you could use it as a handy means of changing straight quotes to smart quotes—either across the whole document or in a selected portion of it.††
To add AutoFormat to the Quick Access Toolbar, go to File > Options > Quick Access Toolbar. Then, under All Commands, choose AutoFormat… from the list and click Add.
There are two additional tabs in the AutoCorrect dialog box.
Math AutoCorrect is basically a “Replace text as you type” option for math. By default, it works only in Word equations. But you can check a box to make it work everywhere. Then, for example, typing “\alpha” will result in the Greek lowercase letter alpha (α). Fun, but dangerous for editors.
Finally, there’s a tab called Actions (formerly Smart Tags). This will add some additional options to the right-click menu. For example, when it’s enabled you can right-click on a date and then call up your Outlook calendar for that day. Nifty, but no thanks.
Do you have a favorite AutoCorrect option? Tell us about it in the comments. (And if you’re looking for more ideas for taking control of Word, revisit our post “10 New Favorite MS Word Tricks for Editors.”)
* If we did want a ©, we’d get it from the special characters menu. Or we’d use a keyboard shortcut like Option-G on a Mac or Alt+0169 in Windows—or, in Word for Windows, Ctrl+Alt+C or Unicode number 00A9 followed by Alt+X.
† This post was written in a Windows 10 installation of Word for Office 365. Details will vary slightly in other versions of Word or on a Mac, and Word for mobile devices may work differently.
‡ You may also notice an option to show “AutoCorrect Options buttons.” When this box is checked, you should be able to review each autocorrection in your document via a shortcut menu. I rely instead on Undo (Ctrl+Z in Windows; Command-Z on a Mac).
** To remove hyperlinks, select all of the text and then press Ctrl+Shift+F9 or, on a Mac, Command-Shift-F9.
†† Editors looking for a more comprehensive set of options for Word may want to consider the cleanup tools available from a service like the Editorium. For a manuscript cleanup checklist, see paragraph 2.80 in CMOS.
Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Russell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.