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Non printing characters

We sometimes have clients who are confused when they see what they perceive to be strange squiggles and characters in their Word document.

These are non-printing characters. It can be very useful to be able to display and review these non-printing characters. Brochet now routinely adds a button in the utilities section of our ribbon tabs for customised templates.

Clicking on this button toggles between displaying and hiding all non-printing characters (and whatever specific non-printing characters you have chosen to always display*).

*It is possible to configure Word to always show specific non-printing characters, click on File: Options and display, and tick those formatting marks you always want to display.

If you tick any of the first six items, then these non-printing characters will always display no matter how many times you click the Show/Hide button.

When you use the toggle button on the toolbar, the last item “Show all formatting marks” is checked and unchecked. So when it is checked all of the above are shown, and when it is unchecked any that are not individually ticked are hidden.

What are these non-printing characters?

Paragraph marks

Also known as a pilcrow, represents the end of a paragraph. A paragraph mark is inserted by clicking the Enter key. A paragraph mark contains all the paragraph formatting of that paragraph. So you can copy and paste just the paragraph marker to another document and paste the paragraph formatting to another document.

The last paragraph marker of a document also contains header/footer and page margin information, and should not be pasted between documents.

Line breaks / Soft return

Symbolised with a small down arrow pointing to the left. A line break is inserted by clicking Shift+Enter. A line break starts a new line without forcing a paragraph. You might use a line break if your paragraph formatting has space after applied and you wanted to commence a new line without inserting the space.

Special breaks

When a paragraph is formatted with “Keep with next”, “Keep lines together”, “Page break before” or “Suppress line numbers” applied, then when showing non-printing characters in the margin next to the paragraph you will see a small black square.


These force special breaks within a document, for example, to commence a new page, a new column or a new section.

Section breaks are a particularly powerful feature that enables a document to switch formatting mid-flow so to speak. For example, headers and footers can change, or even page size or orientation.

If you do not show your non-printing characters it would be very easy to accidentally delete or copy a pagination break and then struggle to understand why the formatting of your document had changed.

Space characters

A space can be identified as a small raised dot visible between words when non-printing characters are shown.

A non-breaking space, inserted by pressing Ctrl+Shft+Space, displays like a degree symbol between words.


A tab allows you to indent text, or align it in tabular format. A tab is inserted by pressing the tab key, and displays an arrow pointing to the right.

Cell markers

In tables with show non-printing characters toggled to on, at the end of a table cell and again at the end of a table row, you will see a symbol like a circle with four diagonal pointers.

Like a paragraph mark, the cell marker contains paragraph formatting for the last paragraph in the cell and the formatting for the cell itself. The end of row marker, which looks exactly the same, contains the row formatting information.

Hidden text

Hidden text is displayed with a dotted underline:

Even when shown in a Word document, the hidden text will not print unless specifically configured to do so in Print options.


Anchors show as a little anchor next to a paragraph mark,

They signify the paragraph to which a floating object such as an image or picture is attached.

Additional non-printing characters

Two more non-printing characters that are not affected by the Show/Hide toggle button, but which can be useful to display are:

Field codes

Field codes are special features that allow Word to populate parts of the document automatically. These can be especially useful for formatting footers in long complex documents, a Table of Contents is another special kind of field code.

It can be especially useful to know where these field codes are in a document, one solution being to (Word 2013/2016) click on File:Options: Advanced, and scroll down to “Show document content”

And to change the drop-down for Field shading to be either “When selected” or “Always”.


Unfortunately, you cannot display these using the toggle to show non-printing characters. Instead, you have to use File:Options: Advanced, and tick “Show bookmarks”

User-defined bookmarks are then shown with a large grey bracket.

A single point book mark looks like an oversized grey capital I:

A bookmark spanning one or more characters looks like large grey brackets.