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

Google is adding a feature to Google Docs that lets you see non-printing characters such as spaces, tabs and different types of pauses, the company announced in a blog post on Monday. The option, which will be available in the View menu, can make editing a document easier by showing you exactly how it’s formatted rather than letting you rely purely on what you can see to see if something has a tab. or a number of spaces. It may also be more helpful in troubleshooting formatting issues.

For now people have had to rely on third-party add-ons so Google Docs can see the non-printing characters. While it’s not a feature that many people will make much use of (more on that later), there was certainly demand for it. A request on Google’s IssueTracker received over 80 votes from people who said they were affected by the inability to see the characters. Some also left impassioned comments: “My team agrees this is a big deal with Google Docs,” one user wrote in 2019, while someone asked, “How is this not available yet?” less than a week ago.

Gif containing a document with non-printing characters enabled.

This gif shows what a document looks like with view mode on and off.
Poison: Google

On the other side of the coin, I, and some of my colleagues, were surprised to learn that the app didn’t have this feature until now. Apparently none of us had ever encountered the need for it or thought to look at it – and yes, that seems a bit odd in hindsight considering we’re all writers, but I guess we just assumed it was there.

I was also surprised that Google Docs didn’t have it, as I remember learning about unprintable characters in an elementary school computer class; Microsoft Word has been able to show them pretty much all the time I’m alive. (One of my co-workers remembered his parents turning on the feature when he was growing up, leading him to believe that’s how electronic documents worked.)

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

Shreya has been with australiabusinessblog.com for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider australiabusinessblog.com, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

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