Tabs and multiple spaces

I often get questions about why UX Write doesn’t allow you to insert tabs into a document, or place multiple spaces after a period. Some people have also asked about why existing tabs in a Word document show up as a grey [tab] marker. In this post I’m going to explain why this is.

UX Write uses HTML – the language of the web – for displaying and editing documents. When you open and save a Word document, UX Write converts it to HTML and back again. The HTML content is displayed on screen using a software component called WebKit, which is the same layout engine as used by Safari (and formerly Chrome). Every document you edit in UX Write is quite literally a web page; the only difference with a web browser is that your document is stored locally on your device, not published online.

HTML provides a slightly different set of layout features to Word. While most features can be converted back and forth without problems, there are some features present only in HTML, and some present only in Word. Thus, UX Write can never provide a 100% faithful rendering of all Word documents, and doing so has never been a design goal.

I chose HTML partly because it’s so widely used – as the foundation of the web – and partly because it enabled me to use an existing layout engine, rather than spend years writing my own. HTML is also much better designed than Word, and with a minimal amount of training a person can reasonably read and write HTML code directly. This is not the case with Word documents.


HTML doesn’t support tabs. There’re simply not used not the web.

While I’m not sure of the exact rationale for the W3C (who designed HTML) to exclude tab support, I suspect the reason is because it’s unnecessary, in the sense that everything you can achieve with tabs you can also achieve without.

There are two main use cases I’m aware of:

1. Paragraph indentation. This can be achieved in both HTML and Word by changing either the left margin or text indent formatting properties of the paragraph or style.

In UX Write, go into the formatting menu and then either direct formatting or the style manager, and set these as appropriate. I recommend creating a style for the indented paragraph, so that you can do this again easily by selecting the style from the formatting menu, and later adjust the amount of indentation if you so wish.

2. Tabular data. This can be achieved in both HTML and Word by using tables, either with or without a border. Instead of adjusting tab stops, you adjust column widths. Instead of setting the alignment of a tab stop, you set the alignment of a table cell or column.

Even better, with tables it’s possible to create a custom style that defines the horizontal alignment, vertical alignment, and border appearance once and then use this for all tables in your document, so you don’t have to go formatting each manually.

Unfortunately UX Write doesn’t support customising table formatting at present, but this is coming in the near future. However, any customisations you make in Word will be retained by UX Write. I’m also considering providing the ability to convert tabs to a combination of indented paragraphs and tables when the app encounters a document containing these, so you don’t have to do so manually.

Multiple spaces after a period

By default, HTML collapses all whitespace in the source file, which means that any consecutive sequence of one or more spaces or newline characters in the HTML code is displayed on-screen in the same way as if there were a single space. If you view the source of a HTML document, you’ll typically see that a single paragraph is actually spread over multiple lines, e.g.:

<p>Here is a HTML paragraph. Its
content spans multiple lines in
the source file, for convenience of
editing in a text editor, but the
author's intention is to have it
displayed using word-wrapping according
to the user's browser window size.</p>

In a sense, HTML considers a sequence of space and newline characters simply as an instruction: “Don’t put the surrounding characters next to each other”. In fact, if you use justified text, the amount of space between different words will vary, as the layout engine will space the words out appropriately to ensure that both the left and right edges of all lines except the last line up with the left and right margins. In HTML, and most other file formats, spaces are not a fixed width character, and two spaces are considered no different than one.

While I’m aware of the controversy surrounding the “one space or two after a period” debate, I think it’s a pointless one. This problem was already solved more than 30 years ago by Donald Knuth when he created TeX, which automatically adds a small amount of additional whitespace between sentences, and gives higher priority to inter-sentence spacing than to inter-word spacing when it needs to stretch out a line when performing justification. If you really care about typography this much, you’ll already be using a system like TeX or LaTeX to prepare your final publication-ready output. The image below shows the same two sentences as typeset by LaTeX, Safari, and Microsoft Word; in all three cases, the text was entered with only a single space after the period.

Sentence spacing

The good news is that built-in LaTeX typesetting is coming to UX Write in the very near future. Most of my development effort over the past couple of months has been in porting LaTeX to the iPad, and when this work is complete you’ll be able to take advantage of the beautiful typographic output it produces when printing or generating PDF files, producing much more professional-looking results than is possible with Word. Stay tuned for more on this.

Why does typing two spaces insert a period?

The iOS text entry system has a built-in feature, which I believe is on by default, that allows you to type two spaces in succession to get a period, as a shortcut mechanism. This is an option which can be configured under the in the Settings app, under General > Keyboard > “.” Shortcut:

Period shortcut

While you can turn this off on a system-wide basis, the setting only applies to apps which use Apple’s built-in text entry mechanism (which most do). However, for apps like UX Write that provide their own text input handling, changing the setting has no effect. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge Apple do not provide any mechanism by which apps can determine whether this setting is on or off, so it’s not possible to automatically adjust the input behaviour based on this.

UX Write re-implements this feature itself, to match the behaviour seen in other apps when the setting is on. Before I implemented this, I received a number of complaints about the fact that it didn’t add the period after pressing two spaces, which is why I added support for it. Since then, I’ve received only a handful of complaints about the fact that it does add a period, so of the two options I’ve concluded that it’s better to have it on. This also seems to make sense given what I’ve discussed above about the inability (and pointlessness) of typing multiple spaces manually in a document.