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May 10, 2005 12:07 AM

Broken: Microsoft Word read-only document

MswordPaul Schultz writes:

After viewing and printing a read-only MS Word document, I tried to close it, and was asked if I'd like to save my changes. Which changes would (or could!) those be, since it was read-only?


Word (and esp. Excel) save information about who last opened the file, even if it's read-only!

Posted by: roombahacker at May 10, 2005 12:26 AM

Not broken. It would have asked you to save it to a different file.

Posted by: Josh at May 10, 2005 01:21 AM

Actually, it depends on whether or not it will prevent you from modifying the document in-memory. Then again, if it doesn't, what's the point in telling you it's read-only so visibly? Surely in that case you'd only care when you went to save the file again...

Posted by: josh at May 10, 2005 01:27 AM

BTW, on NTFS partitions, Windows stores the last accessed date in the meta-data for each file. If it's just that, there's no problem with changing it for read-only files. If the containing directory were read-only, that might be a different story.

Posted by: josh at May 10, 2005 01:30 AM

Asking to save to a different file is not the issue. It's th fact that it even asked at all. The problem is that Word likes to store an assortment of meta information with the document such as last time printed so even though the document contents are not modified, information about it is modified

But asking to save last accessed information makes no sense in the context of the document being opened read-only.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at May 10, 2005 08:19 AM

In offices (like mine) there is often a master copy of a file or files on the company hard drive. These files serve as templates for workpapers and such. Many times people can enter things like client numbers, client names, addresses, etc, etc. The copy we open from the hard drive is read-only, which allows us the convenience of making the changes on the template and then just saving a new copy to our laptops, but the firm does not have to worry that its employees are going to screw up the master files. Definitely not broken.

Posted by: Chaos at May 10, 2005 08:49 AM

Oh... and in order for you to be asked to "save your changes" you had to have changed something. Maybe you hit a key and didn't know it because if you didn't change anything it wouldn't ask you to save. The program automatically saves the access information. You don't have to save the file in order to save the access info.

Posted by: Chaos at May 10, 2005 08:52 AM

It's not asking "do you want to save your changes in the exact same file you just opened even though it's read-only and it will undoubtedly return an error if you click 'yes'." It just asks, "do you want to save your changes?" If you click "yes" you can pick a new file to save your changes into. If you click "no" the document closes with nothing being saved.

This site is to the point where almost half the posts are things that are either not broken at all (like this one), or things so trivial it's really hard to care one way or the other.

Tomorrow on "this is broken": The gas tank in my car ran out of gas, and it didn't automatically fill itself back up again using little robots!

Posted by: James Schend at May 10, 2005 12:12 PM

This is incredibly broken, and is indicative of how Word is generally broken.

We can read the prompt as `Dear user: I've made changes to your document. I'm not going to tell you what they are, but rest assured, something changed. Save?'

In the interest of protecting the user from the technical difficulties of writing with a computer, Word does a huge amount of work behind the user's back, whether the user wants it or not. I don't use Word very often (I'm a LaTeX guy), and every time I work with Word I feel helpless. What will it change this time? Will my tables get reformatted? Will the citations be renumbered to the default that I spent half an hour trying to override last time?

Because so much happens without the user's control, there is no easy-to-understand relation between what the user does and how the document changes. This is what causes people to be afraid of computers and to develop the little superstitions that fill the computing lives of so many non-wizards. As a computer wizard but a Word novice, prompts like this one give me a heart attack.

Posted by: Mr BK of Baltimore, MD at May 10, 2005 01:55 PM

"We can read the prompt as `Dear user: I've made changes to your document. I'm not going to tell you what they are, but rest assured, something changed. Save?'"

Mr Bk of Baltimore:

I hate to inform you of this, but your computer does not make changes all by itself. Unless you make a change to a MS Word document yourself it will not ask you to save. The computer does not turn itself on in the middle of the night when you are not around, grab itself a cup of electricity from the local outlet, open up your Word docs, and say "Gee, what can I change tonight without him knowing. I don't like the numbering of his citations; let's change 'em."

I can't even imagine what kind of "computer wizard" you must be, but if these kind of messages scare you, I think you need to go back to school.

Posted by: Chaos at May 10, 2005 02:43 PM

Word is rather broken, but it is also rather easy to use and popular and therefore many people use it.

However, I do hate two things about Word.

1. It inserts all sorts of unnecessary stuff in HTML documents. Try typing "hello" into a HTML file and saving in Word, then viewing the source in a browser and trying to find "hello".

2. It is almost impossible to manage the styles, especially in long documents with Asian text and lots of different formatting.

Posted by: Fuzzy at May 10, 2005 03:21 PM

all comments 15 words or less

Posted by: hgv at May 10, 2005 04:31 PM


Word most certainly does change things on its own. Referring to the original post, you will see that the document was opened, read, and printed. That's it. But since Word likes tore additional meta information withe document, it is considered changed because you actually looked at it. However, you took no action that actually modified the content.

In other words, it behaves counterintuitively.

If you didn't change the content, what happened? Well, it appears that Word changed something on its own.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at May 10, 2005 04:54 PM

Dear, um, Chaos:

Your ad hominem attack gives me a chance to point out one more thing about Word: it's actually a whole lot of products which don't quite work alike. Obviously, the behavior that the people here are complaining about (a Save Changes propmt with no apparent changes) doesn't happen on your copy of Word.

You insist that everybody else is doing something wrong, but it's clearly the case that their copy of Word works differently from yours. I myself will attest that I have often opened a document and then ('oops, wrong one') immediately closed it and gotten the Save Changes prompt.

Part of my own problems with the program come from the fact that I use a number of different computers with a variety of versions of Word (since all my PCs are linux boxes, I've gotta use whatever PC is around for Word). Further, I am writing a book: a compilation of several chapters with a whole lot of formatting, cross-references, and other such details. If I edit a chapter of the book on PC #1 with Word `97, save it to the Net, and open it on PC #2 with Word XP, many of my carefully-selected settings will change. Feel free to deny my problem, but it happens often enough that I have a list of settings I need to restore every time I reopen the book. And believe me, I've wasted enough of my life futzing with the settings to try to get them to behave consistently.

In fact, even two computers which both have Word XP may behave differently: for example, if you link to a chapter with a computer that has Windows XP SP1, it'll use an absolute path for the link in the Master Document, but if you link to a chapter using a PC with XP SP2, then it'll use a relative path. This is enough to break all of the Master Documents's cross-references, and there is absolutely no way to change this (I've done the research).

The long and short of it is that even if you, Chaos, feel that your copy of Word is predictable, that doesn't say anything about Word version N on anyone else's computer---and that's a huge part of the problem.

Posted by: Mr BK of Baltimore, MD at May 10, 2005 04:54 PM

I agree word is borken, especially for editing web pages, it'll change tables and formats, I'm also not a fan of it chanign things on its own. Yay for!

Posted by: Vic at May 10, 2005 04:58 PM

my spelling is also broken, btw

Posted by: Vic at May 10, 2005 05:09 PM

Just tested (with Office 2000):

I opened a Word document that I had written (in "My Documents"), printed it, and closed Word. It did not ask me if I wanted to save the changes.

I saved another Word document (from an Outlook email, written by someone else) onto my Desktop. I opened it in Word, printed it, and closed Word. It asked me if I wanted to save my changes.

What changes? The fact that I printed it? Or maybe some silent conversion from a different version of Word? How am I supposed to know?

If I say "OK" to save the changes, and then re-open that file on the Desktop, and print it again, it will once again ask me if I want to save the changes. That would lead me to believe that it's updating the "last printed" time or something... but then why doesn't it ask in the first case I described?

PS: "Chaos" is broken.

Posted by: mph at May 10, 2005 06:01 PM

Wow. You guys can talk a lot about these things. sheesh.... take a breath.

Posted by: BREATH!! at May 10, 2005 06:28 PM

It is Microsoft's big scheme to get people to buy the newest version of their product. It is all a money making scheme.

Posted by: Andy Hoffman at May 11, 2005 01:40 AM

this isn't new. MS Works has always done this, although i'm surprised it hasn't gotten on here til now.

Posted by: Bob at May 11, 2005 07:52 AM

Well throw at stone me, but I just had two other people and myself try this yet again. We open the read-only files, printed, and closed. We tried it three times on various files. It never asked us to save any changes.

Posted by: Chaos at May 11, 2005 09:08 AM

Maybe my office is broken...

Posted by: Chaos at May 11, 2005 09:09 AM


This is talking about Microsoft Word, I'm not sure but Works may operate differently since they're different products.

I just tried out the open/print/close of a read only document, and I was not prompted to save the document either.

Posted by: Joshua Wood at May 11, 2005 10:23 AM

Mr Bk>

>We can read the prompt as `Dear user: I've made changes to your document. I'm not going to tell you what they are, but rest assured, something changed. Save?'

This brings up a feature that I have dreamed about and wished for in many, many different programs and applications: A 'Review Changes' option on save that takes me step by step through whatever changes I've made in a document since opening it. Photoshop and its ilk have a History, so why not the same option with Word or Excel? There have been many times I have wanted to make sure I've changed everything I meant to during a session and had to manually scroll through, and many other times I've inadvertently introduced an error into a document that I didn't intend. Having the option to "Review Changes" would be a boon in both situations.

How about it, developers?

BTW, anyone else out there know how to write a macro to do this?

Posted by: Erich at May 11, 2005 07:48 PM

Can't we all just get along

Posted by: Tonya at May 11, 2005 10:05 PM

I can personally attest to the following experience on a regular basis: Create new document from template. Write some text. Save document. Print. Close document: Would you like to save your changes?

Note that I did nothing between saving and closing except click on the print button. Word itself has either changed something (like metadata) or interpreted something as a change. Conceptually, printing a document should not make changes to it, but with Word 2000, it does.

1. This does happen.

2. Word is doing something unexpected.

Posted by: Kelson at May 12, 2005 12:52 AM

Come on..... it's MICROSOFT..... the question with the shortest answer would be "What's Not Broken?"

Posted by: julie at May 12, 2005 08:37 AM

What's so secret about your file???

Posted by: no one at May 12, 2005 08:12 PM

If you make any edits to the readonly file, Word will prompt you about saving. This is actually a FIX to another aspect of WORD that is broken. I'm going to submit this separately as:

MS Word Broken: Can't believe a file is writeable.

Posted by: Precision Blogger at May 13, 2005 04:55 PM

Word is broken.. in many ways.. I especially like when you mess up and click a non-word document to open in word and it tries to open it anyway.. and brings up a bunch of junk.. they shouldv'e put in a second check to say this doesnt seem to be a word document are you sure..and then each new edition seems to mostly be cosmetic/eye candy changes and some of the same bugs that have been there since version 1..

Posted by: Infinity at May 14, 2005 01:38 PM

I'm sorry, but as josh (second poster) said, it would have asked you to save to a different file. This is standard. Therefore, this post is NOT BROKEN.

Even if it was, that wouldn't warrant 30 posts about broken microsoft products. WOULD YOU PEOPLE SHUT UP ALREADY????

Posted by: head injury from microsoft posts!!! at May 15, 2005 05:48 PM

Sorry, JW. I meant MS Word.

MS Works is just a cheap version of Office, isn't it?

Posted by: Bob at May 16, 2005 07:51 AM

Despite the apologists for Microsoft here, it's clear that the Principle of Least Surprise is being violated. For most people, there is a difference between "changes to the document" (i.e. the content), and "changes to the metadata describing how the document has been used". (If someone opens a writeable document, prints it, and is then asked if they want to save changes, they may reasonably suppose that they have inadvertantly changed the content.)

The obvious answer is to reflect this difference in the content of the dialog box. AFAIK there's no big UI rule that says that all changes to content or metadata have to result in the same terse, ambiguous dialog. (The addition of a "Review changes..." button would complement this nicely.)

Posted by: Geoff Arnold at May 16, 2005 10:12 AM

This happens to me when I open a Read Only doc where the date in the footer is set to update automatically. It was very annoying until I figured out it was safe not to save...

Posted by: Katie at May 18, 2005 05:26 PM

Word is broken on so many levels. I only use it when necessary- normally at work. CTRL+A, which normally is "select all" does some obscure function that I never bother to figure out. "Select All" is CTRL+"NUMPAD 5".... WTF??!?! This wasn't that long ago either.

Word is THEE most annoying program I have ever been forced to use. MS needs to delete it and start over....

Posted by: yep at May 19, 2005 09:26 PM

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