Google Docs adds a feature we thought it already had: non-printing characters

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‘How has this not been made available yet??’

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Google is adding a feature to Google Docs that lets you see non-printing characters such as spaces, tabs, and various types of breaks, the company announced in a blog post on Monday. The option, which will be available in the View menu, can help make editing a document easier by showing you exactly how its formatted rather than making you rely purely on what you can see to tell whether something is a tab or a bunch of spaces. It can also be more helpful when troubleshooting messed up formatting.

Before now, people have had to rely on third-party add-ons for Google Docs to see the non-printing characters. While it’s not a feature that many people will have much use for (more on that in a second), there was definitely demand for it. A request on Google’s IssueTracker received over 80 votes from people saying they were impacted by the inability to see the characters. Some also left impassioned comments: “My team agrees that this is a major issue with google docs,” wrote one user in 2019, while someone asked “How has this not been made available yet??” less than a week ago.

Gif showing a document with non-printing characters enabled.

Gif showing a document with non-printing characters enabled.

On the other side of the coin, I, and several of my colleagues, were surprised to hear that the app didn’t have this feature until now. Apparently, none of us had ever come across the need for it or thought to check for it — and yes, that does seem a bit odd in retrospect, given that we’re all writers, but I guess we just assumed it was there.

I was also surprised that Google Docs didn’t have it given that I remember learning about non-printing characters in an elementary school computer class; Microsoft Word has been able to show them for pretty much the entire time I’ve been alive. (One of my co-workers recalled that his parents had the feature on when he was growing up, which made him think that was just how electronic documents worked.)

Still, the addition is better late than never, and I’m sure there are some Google Docs users that are very excited by this announcement. According to the blog post, the feature will be available to all business, educational, and personal accounts, and should be fully rolled out by February 7th.

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