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Reveal Hidden Characters and Word's secrets with Show All

If you are working on a Word document with complex formatting, sometimes you need to see the hidden characters and unseen workings.  It helps figure out Word’s secrets or what’s going on when the layout doesn’t behave. That’s where ‘Show All’ becomes essential.

Microsoft Word was designed to hide all the formatting and technicalities (WYSIWYG). Early versions of Word had a ‘Show All’ option but it was hidden away because Microsoft believed their software was so good, such a tool was not necessary. At some point commonsense prevailed and now ‘Show All’ is on the Home tab, Paragraph section.

Show all is the easy way to see all the underlying formatting to help you figure out what’s happening. Tabs, Section Breaks, Paragraph Marks even Spaces are all exposed by Show All.

See Understand the Show All markers in Word

As with most things in Word, you can use either a keyboard shortcut or the mouse to see the hidden formatting characters.

  • Keyboard, hit Control+Shift+8.
  • Mouse, simply click the Show/Hide button on the Home tab.

Show All at work

For example, in the document below, I have a few strange things happening – text in columns with strange gaps in the column, and the text has stopped halfway down the page, even though there is more following on the next page.

We can now see all the paragraph marks, indents, and several different section breaks that are making our text do strange things. The Section Break (Continuous) in the middle of the right-hand column make the two-column setting to become single column then back to two-column. The next page section break at the bottom, is what is pushing text to the next page.

Once we can see all these things, it becomes a lot easier to find the culprits causing problems, and remove them.

Here’s a document with an off-center heading and a paragraph with strange text wrapping..

Show All reveals the problems. The text isn’t centered, someone has used tabs instead, and there are unnecessary tabs after the text. The paragraph is broken with a Line Break

Hiding the Characters Again

Both the keyboard and mouse methods of showing hidden characters act as toggles. So to hide the characters again, just press Control+Shift+8 or click the Show/Hide button again.

Showing Hidden Characters Permanently

If you find you are regularly needing to look at the hidden characters in your document, it is possible to make some or all display permanently. Doing this isn’t usually necessary and make Word very cluttered and difficult to work with, but ‘each to their own’.

Just go to File | Options, and click on the Display tab. Then under “Always show these formatting marks on the screen”, tick the items that you want to show permanently.

“Show all formatting marks” box acts as a toggle switch for the Show/Hide button on the ribbon. If you tick this box, the Show/Hide button will be toggled on when you look at the document again. Turning this button off on the ribbon will also untick the “Show all formatting marks” in the Word Options dialog.

If you have characters such as paragraph marks, spaces, or tab marks ticked in the Word Options dialog, then switching off Show Hidden Characters will only switch off the items that are not ticked in Word Options. The paragraph marks, etc. will continue to display until you turn them off in Options.

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