Style Overrides: Seduction on the Ribbon

Posted: September 12, 2016 | By:

Enablers. They are everywhere. The drug dealers, the prescription writers, the person you send to the grocery store to buy “food” and comes back with a frozen pie full of toxic ingredients that you can’t pronounce. The problem with enablers is that they are fickle: when you hit bottom, will they be there for you, or will you be in recovery all by yourself?

The same thing applies to the buttons on Word’s ribbon. If you need to apply boldface or underlining to a word, there’s nothing easier than to click those buttons—at least that’s what they want you to think. You have a problem, and they provide a quick solution. However, when you undergo open carpal-tunnel surgery because you’ve been clicking on the ribbon your entire working life, will those buttons be there when the local anesthetic wears off?

What is a style override?

First of all, apologies to all those readers who do suffer from an addiction or minister to someone who has one. Of all the destructive vices to which humans subject themselves, clicking on Word’s ribbon or LibreOffice’s toolbar is preferable to almost any other. I wish you a speedy recovery.

Nevertheless, clicking on the ribbon is destructive in that it introduces style overrides into your manuscript.

Recall our definition of a style from Suffering Consequences in Style:

A paragraph style is a collection of settings that determine its appearance.

When a paragraph doesn’t look like its style, it has a style override. (Another term for style override is “local formatting.”) For example, if your paragraph style uses Calibri 11 pt, which is the default typeface for Word’s body paragraphs, and you actually see on the screen 12 pt or Times New Roman, then the paragraph is infected with a style override.

Different authors have different definitions for a style override. Here is the one that I use:

A style override is formatting applied to a paragraph that is different from the paragraph’s style.

The definition of a black hole is a bit more enticing. Regardless, there are more style overrides in the universe than there are black holes, so it’s a topic worth exploring through the use of an example.

Peter has been using a creative-writing journal as part of his therapeutic exercises to cope with long commute times. Here is a recent entry.

January 15, 2016

The traffic today was just awful. For one thing, all those truckers were on strike, just like they do in France, driving 10 MPH below the speed limit. That was the good news; the bad news is that most people were stuck at driving 20 MPH below the speed limit because it was rush hour. You can imagine the bedlam that ensued. With trucks piling into cars, those cars piling into other cars, and those cars piling into other trucks, it was a complete mess. Then came the HELICOPTERS who tried to save people by extricating them from wreckage. Things only got worse when the health insurers came and canceled everyone’s coverage who was within a five-mile radius of the bakery truck that exploded, spewing unbaked yeast into the air and basically causing the largest biohazard in the universe’s history (not counting the Big Bang, of course).

(Aside from the hyperbole, Peter’s “creative-writing” journal isn’t much of either. The fact that this journal entry describes a morning commute, and not an office romance or weekend rock concert in London, indicates that Peter needs a life, and even reading about style overrides would be an improvement for his work-life balance!)

Let’s assume that the base style for Peter’s journal is the same as this one, and that style specifies a 13pt sans-serif font. Given that assumption, we see that this journal entry has two paragraphs both of which have style overrides. The first paragraph lists only the date. This paragraph is right-aligned, compared to our style definition that it be left aligned. To achieve this effect, Peter probably clicked the right-align button in the ribbon or pressed Ctrl+R.

The second paragraph is the journal entry itself and its five style overrides: the 10 MPH set in boldface, the 20 MPH set in boldface and underline, HELICOPTERS set with a gray background and in upper case, the worse set in italics, and the largest biohazard in the universe’s history (not counting the Big Bang, of course).

In addition to these style overrides, Peter set the text typeface and size different from that in the base style. One common way of doing applying a typeface throughout an entire document is to press Ctrl+A and then select a font font from the ribbon, such as Times New Roman.

The following table summarizes the style overrides Peter introduced in his journal entry.

Property Base Setting Override
Paragraph alignment Left aligned Paragraph with date is right aligned
Font Times New Roman Sans-serif font
Underlined None One word with single underline, another word with double underline
Boldface None Two words set in boldface
Italic None Two words set in italic
Shading None One word set with gray shading

That is quite a bit for two paragraphs in a journal, and quite often there are many more in “real” manuscripts.

Viewing Style Overrides

Word lists style overrides in the Styles Pane. The post Number of style overrides at character level explains how to display the Styles Pane with overrides. Take one of your own manuscripts, open the Styles Pane, and see how many overrides you have. If there are a lot of plus signs, you have quite a lot of style overrides, and you may want to keep reading.

What Introduces Style Overrides?

Anything that makes a paragraph look different from its underlying style introduces a style override. Many opportunities for injecting style overrides appear on Word’s Clipboard, Font, and Paragraph groups on the ribbon’s Home tab. In the following screen shot, clicking any of the buttons in the red area introduces style overrides. (Advanced Word users know this does not have to be the case, and in a future blog topic we’ll describe how customizing the ribbon can avoid introducing style overrides.)

left portion of Word's home tab

One particular button that proliferates style overrides is the Format Painter. This convenient tool copies the format from one word and applies it to other words. The Format Painter is particularly useful when you have a word with complex formatting, such as a combination of color, background, boldface, and underline, and you want to copy that formatting to another word. Creating this formatting requires four clicks on the ribbon, and copying that formatting requires another four clicks each time. Using the Format Painter you can replicate the formatting with only two clicks. The problem is that doing so also replicates the style override.

How to Avoid Style Overrides

The only way to avoid style overrides is to create new styles as you need them, and then apply the style to the characters or paragraph. In Peter’s case, he would need to create six styles to properly format his journal entry without style overrides—one for each override listed in the previous table. Were he to do so, he would be failing the Carpal-Tunnel Test. Generally it takes a minimum of two mouse clicks and a bit of typing at the keyboard to create a style, and the overhead for using the style only one time isn’t worth the effort. However, reports, proposals, contracts, newsletters, and theses often use the same complex formatting in many places. For these types of non-fiction, the up-front effort in creating a style pays for itself many times over.

This week’s blog post and the companion post Suffering Consequences in Style described styles and style overrides, but neither post provided any motivation for using the former and avoiding the latter. We’ll get to that critical topic in next week’s post.

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