by Allen Wyatt
(last updated December 7, 2013)
Beginning in Word 2000, Microsoft added two new special characters to Word: the no-width optional break and the no-width non break. Both characters are visible if you display the Symbol dialog box and scroll to the bottom of the Special Characters tab. (See Figure 1.) These characters were intended for use with some Asian languages, where characters can be placed beside or on top of one another. Also, the languages may use syntactic constructions that have no spaces between sequential words, unlike the English language which uses spaces to separate words.
Figure 1. The Symbol dialog box.
The easiest way for English-speaking people to understand these two characters is to compare them to a space and a non-breaking space. A space is used to separate words, and a space is a natural place to break two words at the end of a line. The no-width optional break is analogous to a space. If it is inserted between two words, the words would normally appear next to each other, with no space between them, unless the words fall at the end of a line. In that case, Word can put the first word at the end of the line and the second word at the beginning of the next line.
For the purposes of Asian languages, the no-width non break character is analogous to a non-breaking space character in English. It provides a way to make sure that two subsequent words stay together, even though the character has no width.
Even though the characters are primarily intended for Asian languages, you may think that they could be used in some English-language situations. For instance, you might think that a no-width non break character could be used following an en dash or an em dash to make sure that the words surrounding the dashes always stay on the same line together. This, however, will not work.
To understand why it won't work, again refer to the analogous English characters. Remember that the no-width non break is analogous with the non-breaking space. If you type a word, insert a dash (en or em), type a non-breaking space, and then another word, the words and the dash still will break at the end of a line, right after the dash. (The non-breaking space ends up as the first character on the next line.)
Unfortunately, there is no direct way in Word to make either the en dash or the em dash "sticky" at both ends; they are always sticky with the word preceding them, but will break at the end of the dash, if necessary.
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