Weird Word tab behavior explained

Buggin’ My Life Away: The Case of the Missing Tab. Rick Schaut, an engineer on the Mac Word team at Microsoft, explains the logic that makes Word convert presses of the Tab key to special formatting (first-line indentations, indent the entire paragraph, or insert a Tab character). Basically the Auto Formatter engine figures out what to do based on where the user’s cursor is:

To summarize these rules, if the insertion point is:

  1. In an empty paragraph–always inserts a tab character;
  2. In the middle of a non-empty paragraph–always indents the whole paragraph; and
  3. In the first line of a paragraph:
    1. If there are no tab stops set, then indents the first line of the paragraph; or
    2. If there is a tab stop set, then inserts a tab character.

The most common case where Word is likely to be wrong is case #3, so the auto-recovery feature in Word 2003/2004 allows you to convert the auto-formatted indent back to a tab.

Key words being “most common.” I think this is the unavoidably maddening thing about all these autocorrect features—they apply the 80-20 rule. Nothing makes some people angrier than having their computer—where they’re supposed to be in control—make the wrong assumptions about what they’re trying to do based on what “most people” are doing.