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Tech Sense by John Bell February 2023: Using our Tools: The Word Processor

Using our Tools: The Word Processor

This month we continue the “Using our Tools” series with the Word Processor. Word processing was one of the most successful categories of software at the dawn of the microcomputer industry. WordStar, an early 8-bit program dominated the business systems running on CP/M on green screens until MS-DOS and 16-bit systems took over. Then Word Perfect became the leader until computers with Graphical User Interfaces (GUI’s) like the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows became dominate. In a few years Microsoft began to dominate with Microsoft Word for Windows which was followed eventually by the Microsoft Office Suite (MS-Office).

About this time, the market for word processing changed. Over the years companies began bundling the word processor with other common office tools, including a spreadsheet, a presentation tool, and other useful software like email clients, and drawing programs. These were packaged into a single collection of applications known as the “Office Suite”.

Today Microsoft Office and Office 365 are the dominate Office Suites in the market and are offered for purchase on most Windows 10, 11, and Apple computers. Microsoft also offers a less capable browser-based version of their office suite as well.

While Microsoft Office dominates the office suite market there are some notable alternatives. Google offers an online suite of products that includes Google Docs as a reasonably powerful Word Processor. The Google Docs suite of tools runs on the browser and operates on almost any computer with a standards compatible browser. LibreOffice is a completely free and open-source Office Suite. It is largely compatible with MS-Office, well supported and maintained, and great for systems like Linux where MS-Office is not as readily available.

There are many other Word Processors and Office Suites out there, but the three we have mentioned already are the most popular. We will focus on only these products.

What is a Word Processor?

So, it may seem obvious to you now, it hasn’t always been obvious, a Word Processor is a tool used to assist in the creation of formatted written documents. This is different from a text editor for example which typically has little if any formatting tools. In spite of the fact that in the early days of micro-computing WordStar was commonly used as a text editor. A word processor is not a typewriter. Typewriters have limited formatting capabilities that are normally manually forced. For example, double spacing on a typewriter means hitting the return key twice between lines on typewriter but is considered a mistake on a word processor. Formatting on a word processor is mostly automated using styles which control fonts, spacing both vertically and horizontally, page organization, and many other things that make modern printed or displayed documents more like professionally typeset documents of old.

So, in addition to editing text, the word processor allows us to determine the attributes of the text like; the font, size, emphasis (or bold), italics, underline, strike-through, color, and background-color of the text. It also allows us to automatically perform left, right, and center justification and space text evenly from border to border of the page. It automatically kerns or adjusts the spacing between proportional letters. Styles can be created by combining these attributes, so that a title looks differently than normal text for example. All of this is done to make your documents easier to read.

WYSIWYG and Printing

Before the GUI a word processor might only show style codes and the only way to see what was going to print was to print it. Now we see something that is close to what the printed output will be, and we can use “preview mode” to get a preview of the printed version without printing. This is called “what you see is what you get” abbreviated as WSIWYG pronounced as wizzywig.

Printers have even changed; in the early days many printers only had a few built-in fonts and you might purchase a graphics mode driver to get nicer printouts. Modern printers can replicate or download almost any font and use a page description language (like Postscript for example) to describe to the printer exactly what it should print on each page. This means that what I am printing matches what I expected based on that the screen showed me.

Spelling and Grammar

In my first business I used WordStar as my word processor, and it included a spellchecker. You might think that a spellchecker is a form of magic, as you type it checks your spelling and underlines your mistakes so you can make the correction. It will even suggest corrections for you. My point here is that this is an OLD technology and has been around for 40 years so everyone should be using it by now. Yet I still see college papers with spelling errors.

Now sometimes the spellchecker and I would have a disagreement on certain words. Beltsville is a good example, of course I know how to spell it, but the computer may not. Fortunately, the computer gives you the ability to add new words like Beltsville and the computer will not make the mistake again. See, sometimes it really is the computers’ fault!

Most word processors also have grammar checkers. This is not as smooth as spell checking. Most people when a spelling error is pointed out know what to do. But if the computer puts up a note that says, “passive voice” they are lost. Consider this a learning opportunity. Get out your grammar manual or ask Google and you will find many examples and much advice on mending your ways. It isn’t as easy to fix the computer on this one but is worth the effort to upgrade your own grammatical shortcomings. Also, isn’t this why we hire editors and why our editors are so appreciated?

Final Words

I do appreciate my editors, but I also do have limited space and I have run out of it this month. I expect we will continue with our topic on word processing next month. In the meantime, enjoy your computer.

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