January 19, 2007

Skull and crossbones OK?

I swear I just had a Word document sent back to me from England by a copy editor who, in a truly admirable display of willingness to assume author eccentricity rather than error, appended a Track Changes comment to one of the characters in the document (which I had been required to submit in Word form): Comment: This displays as a skull and crossbones. OK?

No! No! No! The paper in question is a perfectly ordinary review article about the history of linguistics by Barbara and me, and contains nothing about pirates. Tell me whether you detect a difference between the two characters seen here:

′     ☠

If you can't see a difference, or can't see any characters at all on the line above, your browser is not displaying Unicode characters, and the best thing for you to do would be to switch your computer off and sit down and cry. The character in the formula in our paper was supposed to be PRIME, Unicode 2032, not SKULL AND CROSSBONES, Unicode 2620. Indeed, it even displayed as a prime on the Windows machine where I was doing the final corrections, but apparently not on the copy-editor's machine in England.

I am not a dingbat-crazed lunatic notation inventor, I told her. I'm just one of the millions of victims of the phenomenon of word processor file transfers always screwing up all the special characters. All our arrows had turned into stars and daggers and things; and all the bullets were exclamation marks by the time they reached the UK. Please God, make the Unicode revolution come soon before I lose it and fire a bullet at a word processor programmer. (It wouldn't kill him, of course; it would just turn into an exclamation mark and drop harmlessly to the floor.)

Update: To be specific about the changes: my PRIME turned into a SKULL AND CROSSBONES; my RIGHT ARROW (→) turned into some kind of a star (remember, I haven't seen it); my LEFT-RIGHT ARROW (↔) turned into a dummy symbol box; and BULLET (•) turned into exclamation mark throughout.

For the Word defenders who want to say perhaps there is some other explanation than a bug in the character code pages in some version of Word, let me add that I have now confirmed that the copy editor in English used Word 2003 running on Windows XP Professional on a Dell desktop. I have viewed the file I sent (though it is true that it was originally an RTF created by WordPerfect 11, it was then opened in Word to make sure things were correct, and was re-saved), using Word 2003 running on Windows XP on an HP. On my system the prime is a prime and the arrows and bullets are arrows and bullets. So we are not talking about a transfer between architectures (like from PC to Mac), and we are not talking about a failure of WordPerfect to write legal RTF, and we are not talking about me using Word and the copy editor viewing the file with some other program.

Sorry, Microsoft apologists, but the finger of suspicion here still points toward Redmond, Washington, and the morass created by years of ad hoc proprietary decisions about how to encode characters. We poor end users deserve better.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 19, 2007 03:22 PM