Sometimes, smart software is a good thing. If programmers have figured out how to make a product like Microsoft Word stay one or two steps ahead of you and save you some work, then that (at least in theory) makes the software easier to use.

Occasionally, though, all that so-called “smartness” just gets in your way. Maybe you don’t want every e-mail address or URL you type to be bright blue and underlined. Or, if you type “1/2”, you want it left alone, not automatically turned into “½”.

These problems have a common source: AutoFormat As You Type. Finding this feature is a challenge, but once you know where to look, fixing these problems (permanently) is pretty easy.

Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows.

To find these options, go to the File tab (or, if you’re still in Word 2007, click on the Office button in the upper left-hand corner) and click on Options. Near the top of the Proofing section you’ll see a button called “AutoCorrect Options.”

Click that button to go to a multi-tabbed dialog box. The tab you want to be on is called AutoFormat As You Type.

By default, Microsoft Word usually has most, if not all, of these options checked when you install it. What you see above are my preferences. Obviously, your preferences will be somewhat different. Here are a few hints as to which features I’d recommend you turn off, and why:

Replace as you type

Most of these descriptions above are pretty self-explanatory. “Smart quotes” are what are otherwise known as “curly quotes,” and while they do make for a more attractive presentation in your text, some older printers are known to have problems with them. If you get any complaints from clients or others you exchange documents with that your quotation marks have been replaced by capital A, you might want to uncheck this particular box.

Others in this section are mostly matters of preference.

Apply as you type

As you can see above, I’ve turned all of these features off on my own installation of Microsoft Word. While some may appreciate Word attempting to discern when a typist wants a numbered or bulleted list, I don’t. I prefer to format these things on my own when I need them. Ditto for the automatic tables and built-in heading styles.

More problematic are the automatic border lines. This is the feature that kicks in if you type a row of dashes and then hit the Return key, only to find a solid line all the way across the page. I’ve yet to find anyone who appreciates this feature, so I commonly tell users to turn this off when installing Microsoft Word.

Automatically as you type

This is sort of a catch-all category for features that really didn’t belong anywhere else above. I happen to like the feature “format beginning of list item like the one before it” because, in a numbered list where I have the numbers boldfaced, it carries that formatting down the list automatically. You may feel differently. The “set left- and first-indent with tabs and backspaces” feature tends to confuse the difference between a tab indentation and a true paragraph indentation, so I leave this unchecked.

Bonus: the infuriating case of the automatic copyright symbol

Although it’s technically not part of the AutoFormat As You Type feature, the copyright symbol that comes out of nowhere is something I see in law offices a lot. That little gremlin is hiding on the AutoCorrect tab:

If you do sub-paragraphs or otherwise use (c) a lot in your documents, do yourself a favor and get rid of this now. Click over to the AutoCorrect tab and find the entry shown above, click on it, then click on Delete. (While you’re at it, go ahead and get rid of that (e) too.)

Stop software from getting ahead of you

The features shown above are just the tip of the Options iceberg in Microsoft Word. There are a slew of other settings in Options which, once you know where they are, can be reset to work with you instead of against you.
(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/4692180679/)