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Going Beyond Basic Spaces and Hyphens in Word

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A space is a space is a space, and one hyphen is the same as any other, right? Ah, if only things were that simple. Fortunately, Word provides you with all the space and hyphen options you need to create high-quality documents. Join Peter Aitken on the road to Word expertise.
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The space bar gets tapped more than any other key, or so it seems from the finger marks on mine! And a space is a space is a space, right? I'm afraid things are not that simple. Word gives you several different kinds of spaces for use in your documents. The situation is the same with hyphens or dashes. You need to know about these special characters if you want to create the highest-quality documents. Let's take a look.

Spaced Out

A normal space, inserted with a tap of the space bar, is used to separate words and sentences and in various other places. It is certainly the type of space you will use most of the time. Three other types of spaces differ only in size—they are wider or narrower than a standard space and as such are useful for fine-tuning a document's appearance. These alternative spaces are as follows:

  • The en space is wider than a normal space. Its name comes from the days of mechanical typesetting and the fact that it is the same width as an "n" character.
  • The em space is wider still, and—as you may have guessed—is approximately the width of an "m" character.
  • The one-quarter em space is just as described—1/4 the width of an em space.

In theory, the 1/4 em space is smaller than a normal space, but to be honest I have a hard time seeing any difference. Perhaps there is a greater distinction in certain fonts.

You insert these special spaces form the Special Characters tab in the Symbol dialog box (select Symbol from the Insert menu). They have their own special display symbols when you are showing formatting marks: both en and em spaces display as a small circle, and a 1/4 em space displays as a vertical line. A normal space, of course, displays as a dot.

A fourth kind of special space does not differ in size, but affects word wrap. By default, Word breaks lines at spaces, moving text that follows a space to the next line to avoid overrunning the margin. A nonbreaking space ensures that the words before and after it always stay together and are never broken across lines. You can insert a non-breaking space from the Special Characters tab, but it is easier to press Ctrl+Shift+space. In Show Formatting mode, a non-breaking space displays as a small circle, the same as an em or an en space.

There are no non-breaking equivalents of the em, en, and 1/4 em spaces. You can approximate a non-breaking en or em dash by inserting two or three non-breaking spaces together. To mimic a non-breaking 1/4 em space, follow these steps:

  1. Insert the characters with no space between them.
  2. Select the two characters.
  3. Select Font from the Format menu and click the Character Spacing tab.
  4. In the Spacing section, select Expanded from the drop-down list and enter the desired spacing, in points, in the By field.
  5. Click OK.

In fact, this technique, although rather cumbersome, can be used to create non-breaking "spaces" of essentially any desired size.

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