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The Problem of Universal Compatibility in Word Processing

Updated on January 30, 2011

My friend June and I are working on a linguistics book whose title is Cycles in Language. The general point that we make in this book is that the more language changes, the more it stays the same. There are cycles that all languages go through, and the changes can seem really significant, unless you take the long view and see how, by an application of the same principles of change over and over again, we come back to results that are similar to the starting point.

However, this hub is not about language change. It is about cycles in word processing. It is about how to deal with the fact that no word processing program seems to work the same on every computer. It is about saving a file and thinking you had all that work to draw upon later, only to find that the march of progress has rendered your file obsolete. It's also about how to get around this problem.

Back in 2003, June and I completed a first draft of our book, and we sent it around for our colleagues to comment upon. We received a lot of good comments and some excellent suggestions on how to make the book better.

And then we got very busy with other things. I had a chimpanzee riding on my back. June had a new baby. Time went by. We didn't revise the book, because we were too busy.

This summer, we both felt we had a little time to work on it. So we took out the old files, planning to re-write. The only problem is, five years have gone by, and neither of us is working on the same computer.

Back when we created the pdf file, both June and I had computers whose operating system was MSWindows for Taiwan. (My version was the Millenium Edition.) The commands and the public folders were all labeled in Chinese. There was a language option that toggled between Chinese and English for input. In addition to all that, I had installed a Hebrew font in my file folder, and June had done the same in hers. We also both used IPA fonts for phonetic symbols. The original document was created in MSWord.

As we sent out sample chapters for review, we learned that no two people saw the same thing when they viewed the doc file on their computer. This was not due to the fonts. We could send the fonts we used to the recipient of the file with instructions to install them in their font folder. Even after installing the fonts, the file did not appear the same on their screen as it did on ours. There were subtle differences of alignment and fixed versus variable pitch that made figures and tables particularly problematic.

For this reason, I purchased Adobe 6.0, in the hopes that converting to pdf would solve all the incompatibility problems that plagued us in MSWord.

In pdf, what you see is what you get, no matter what the operating system of the recipient of the file. Using Adobe 6.0, we were sure we knew what others would see.

Unfortunately, for some reason Adobe 6.0 would not install on my old computer, so we installed it on June's, instead, and converted the files from there. By now I have Adobe 6.0 installed on my current computer as well. When we started revising the manuscript this summer, I had no real difficulty converting the first two chapters from the old pdf files I had to MSWord docs in my current computer. There was no option to edit in pdf, but it was not a big problem, because the files were mostly straight narrative in English, with no foreign examples and no tables. These were just introductory chapters that discussed broad theoretical issues.

The real trouble began with Chapter 3.

One of our commentators had suggested that we move the general examples about language change from Chapter 8 to Chapter 3. This was a good suggestion, and theoretically it should have cost us almost no effort to adopt it. Just change the name of the chapter and some of the section numbers, and in a few other places smooth over dysfluencies involving reference to what used to be earlier chapters, but now will be later chapters.

However, once I converted from pdf to Microsoft Word, what I saw was a mess. IPA fonts and Chinese characters and Hebrew letters were completely absent. Tables were out of alignment, and figures were in shambles. Even the diagram of a clock marking the cycling of linguistic typologies -- a figure with no foreign inscriptions and no phonetic symbols-- came out completely wrong.

Converting to MSWord had revived all the problems we had had that drove us to pdf in the first place. I didn't want to deal with that mess in Word. I wanted to edit the file in pdf, and never take it out of pdf.

I posted a request on hubpages, to which I got two responses. One involved cutewriter pdf and the installation of fonts. The other was about converters. Meanwhile, June had some parallel advice.

June said I should use cutewriter pdf in my old computer, so that I could create a pdf file from the old MSWord file on the old computer, which looked the way it was supposed to. However, the old computer had a burned out modem, and no way to connect to the internet.

There was also another possible solution, again from June. She referred me to a site where I could download pdf995, which was said to be a converting system from pdf to doc.

I enlisted the help of Jim, the owner of the local internet cafe, to help me with that. After about two hours of working on it, it turned out that the conversion using pdf995 was even worse than the one Adobe 6.0 had created for me.

Pdf995 had simply used ocr software to create a text file of the pdf that we converted. None of the typesetting choices were transferred.

Undeterred, Jim tried to find alternative ways. Keep in mind, he was doing this out of the kindness of his heart and charged me nothing. Jim copied all the IPA and foreign fonts off my Chinese laptop, including the Hebrew, and installed them on the newer laptop. (It turn out that, yes, the new laptop did have a fonts folder after all, but you could only see it on My Computer if you clicked on the magic word "explore".)

Once the fonts were in place, the foreign words began to appear in the converted doc, but everything was still terribly misaligned.

Eventually, I used Adobe 6.0 to convert the whole pdf document to a jpg file, page by page, and then I cut out the diagrams I needed to use. (If I had wanted to change a single letter in the diagram, I would have needed to redraw it from scratch.)

I believe in being self-reliant. If MSWord causes this much trouble, I shouldn't complain about it. I should just switch to something else that works better for me. The irony is: I had something better, and I switched to MSWord in order to be compatible with the submissions requirements of linguistics journals.

All through the 1980s, I used Brief together with some macros written by my father. I could create beautiful typesetting, including proportional spacing when I wanted it, fixed pitch when I wanted it, and right justification. I wrote my disseration using that software. But when I got ready to submit my first article to a peer reviewed journal, they demanded that I convert it to MSWord.

Converting took me weeks of painstaking work in a program I was completely unfamiliar with. That was in 1997. I have the file -- it's completely useless in my current computer. I had to get a jpg version of each page.

I know that in other disciplines, people use TeX of LaTeX. However, most linguistics journals want to see a pdf so they know what it's supposed to look like, but when they ask you to make changes, they want it done in MSWord. They themselves seem to use MSWord for typesetting.

So here's my question: what should I do when submitting to peer reviewed publications to make sure that old documents remain compatible with new systems? Is there a version of Adobe that will allow me to edit in pdf and will create an MSWord document compatible with every operating system? Or should I just accept that old work will become obsolete in five years or less?

What Word Processing Software do you use?

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    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Sufi, thanks for the link. I will look into it. June now tends to send me .docx files, but I still produce .doc files. We are compatible in terms of current file types, but editing our old chapters is a problem for both of us.

      We need to be compatible with each other and with the publishers and readers and proofers, and no two systems are the same. .pdf is a good way to get the same visual results everywhere, but the problem is that you can't edit a pdf file directly.

      I wouldn't worry about Brief, though. That's a dead issue...

      Again, thanks for the input!

    • Sufidreamer profile image


      8 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Hi Aya - Word certainly can be a pain in the backside at times. I have had similar problems with Greek characters - it is not about installing fonts but about installing a version of Word compatible with Asian characters. If the recipient of the file inserts their Word installation disc, they can install the charactersets.

      There is some information about it here:

      Just out of interest, which file extension are you saving your current files as? Word 2007 uses .docx extensions, which are not always compatible with older versions and mess up formatting. If you make sure that you save all of your files as .doc, then there should be no problem opening the files in any computer.

      Have you tried OpenOffice? - it is similar to Word, lets you save files as Word docs and has a little button that you can press to convert to pdf, quickly and easily. pdf to doc is always difficult and will have problems - with OpenOffice, you can make changes in the original document and then convert to pdf.

      Don't know if that will help - distiller is good, but you will not find a programme that coverts from pdf to doc without some formatting issues. I write in Word and often convert to OO for pdf conversion - there is always some slight reformatting required, I am afraid.

      Hope that this helps - I cannot be more specific with the info provided. I will see if i can dig anything out about converting from brief to Word!

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Nets, tell me about Acrobat Distiller! Does it maintain the typesetting choices we have made in our previous pdf file? Can it later convert to Word with the typesetting choice intact? Could it be the answer to my query? Is it different from the converter in Adobe Acrobat 6.0?

    • nhkatz profile image


      8 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana

      Stupidly, I would expect them to edit .pdf's in Acrobat Distiller and only edit .doc's in Word.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Nets, this has actually happened to me a couple of times. I send in .pdfs of linguistic articles that contain Hebrew so that the Hebrew part will not get edited by non-speakers. The editors then demand, after they accept it for publication, that I send the article as a .doc so they can play around with the fonts and make the volume look uniform in its typesetting. Sometimes this introduces last minute typos that non-speakers can't recognize.

      Pdfs are for people to read --not to edit. People who don't edit in TeX tend to edit in Word. After an article is accepted, the editors still want a say in the typesetting.

    • nhkatz profile image


      8 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana

      Maybe you can tell them to edit in cutewriter!

      Is the standard way of producing .pdf's to convert them from Word? I've never heard of someone who wants a .pdf file and then demands to be able to edit it in Word.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Nets, thanks. I may look into it. But it would still mean having to re-typeset the old chapters. And... what do I do if they accept the manuscript, having read it in pdf, but now demand that I give the an MSWord file so they can edit it? Does TeX have a conversion to doc?

    • nhkatz profile image


      8 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana


      Just so you know, TeX now easily outputs .pdf files. (The

      command which you apply to a .tex sourcefile is pdftex.

      A complete TeX system for PC is available here for free:


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