9(2), April 1993, pages 93-105

Review: Microsoft WORD 5.1 for the Macintosh

Michael R. Boudreau

Microsoft's latest version of WORD, its best-selling word-processing program, probably includes every feature you would expect in a word-processing program and a few things you wouldn't have thought to ask for. Version 5.1 for the Macintosh lets you type, edit, format, sort, count, and hyphenate your words; check your spelling and grammar; and create tables of contents, indexes, and mail-merge files. It also lets you draw pictures and create precise graphs, record sounds, import files created by other applications, view QUICKTIME movies, and paste all of these into your documents. And there's more.

But is WORD the program of choice for the writing labs of the 1990s or just a monstrous collection of bells and whistles that distract teachers and students from the real work of the computer-assisted writing class? Should you buy WORD or stick with one of the reliable, low-end word-processing programs you may already use? The answer depends not only on what you can afford and what features you need, but also on what you plan to teach in the next few years. WORD undoubtedly provides more than what is absolutely necessary for a first-year writing class, but a first-year writing class may not be enough to keep your computer lab alive. As personal computers make themselves more and more a standard tool of humanities teaching and research, computer labs will be expected to serve an ever-widening selection of students. The value of WORD is in its versatility: The more you do in your computer lab, the more uses you'll find for WORD.

Basic Considerations: Size and Price

Following the trend in high-end Macintosh applications, WORD requires plenty of hard disk space and memory, so your present hardware configuration may determine whether you can use WORD at all. If you install the program and all of its supplemental files, version 5.1 will take up almost 6.5 MB of your hard disk, and unlike version 4.0, it can't be run on a two-floppy system. (The installation options for version 5.1 include a "PowerBook installation," which puts only 2.2 MB of files on your PowerBook's hard disk and configures the program to conserve battery power.) Although WORD 5.0 could get by with 512K of available RAM (i.e., beyond what the system is already using); WORD 5.1 needs at least 1 MB for basic functionality. To use the spell checker, thesaurus, or grammar checker, you need to give WORD at least 2 MB. WORD 5.1 runs on any version of the Macintosh system software since version 6.02 and includes full System 7 support.

So if you're going to use WORD, you'll need Macs with hard disks and at least 4 MB of RAM. If you're just establishing a new computer lab and want to use WORD or similar high-end programs, try to get Macs with at least 4 MB of RAM (and don't buy Macs that you can't eventually upgrade to at least 8 MB or 10 MB) and 40 MB hard disks: That will give you enough memory to run WORD with System 7 and enough disk space to hold the system, WORD, a few other applications, and a lot of documents. (Although many users are calling for software upgrades that enhance performance rather than add features, so far software only gets bigger as it gets better. If you're looking for a sleeker, faster, cheaper word-processing package, look at WRITENOW from T/Maker.)

WORD isn't cheap. The retail price of a single copy of WORD 5.1 is $495, although discount suppliers such as MacWarehouse and MacConnection will sell it to you for about $295. Microsoft offers an "Academic Edition" for $120; it's a full-fledged version of the program in a different box, and you might be able to get it through your school or a local vendor at a discount. In addition, Microsoft sells a 10-pack, designed for computer labs, for $600; it costs less if your school has a good discount contract with Microsoft. (For more information on educational pricing, call Microsoft's Educational Sales and Services Group at 800-227-4679.)

WORD in the First-Year Writing Class

WORD may indeed contain more features than a first-year writing class can ever use, yet the program's uncluttered interface makes the extra features accessible, not distracting. The eight menus contain no submenus and are well-organized, making it easy to remember which commands are found where. The "Ruler" that appears at the top of a document window has been redesigned in versions 5.0 and 5.1; it now has clearly delineated buttons to apply basic formatting (alignment, line spacing, tabs). A new addition in version 5.0, the "Ribbon," contains drop-down menus for font and size of type and one-click buttons to apply bold, italic, underline, superscript, or subscript formatting, as well as to insert pictures, show paragraph and other formatting marks, and choose single-, double-, or triple-column formatting. In version 5.1, buttons have been added to insert tables and graphs. (See Figures 1, 2, 3.) The advantage of these features is that they allow you to see at a glance the essential formatting attributes of any selected text, and they allow single-click access to some features (e.g., column formatting) that before were accessible only through a series of dialog boxes.


[Figure 1]

Figure 1. An open document in Microsoft WORD, showing the menus, the "Toolbar," the "Ribbon," and the "Ruler."  


[Figure 2]

Figure 2. The "Ribbon."


[Figure 3]

Figure 3. The redesigned "Ruler."  

Continuing the principle of easy access, version 5.1 adds a floating "Toolbar" with space for up to 30 buttons (depending on your screen size) that allow single-click access to any of WORD's functions (see Figure 4). With the "Toolbar," for example, you can simply click a button to open any of WORD's dialog boxes, perform basic editing functions ("Cut," "Copy," "Paste," "Undo"), change the document view, run the spell checker or grammar checker, and so on. Users can customize the "Toolbar" to include buttons for any of almost 300 WORD commands, replacing those less-used features with buttons to make their most common activities faster and easier. Students in a basic writing class are almost certain to find the tools they use most often right at hand through the "Ruler," "Ribbon," and "Toolbar."


[Figure 4]

Figure 4. The "Toolbar," a new feature in version 5.1.

Your students should not find WORD harder to learn than any other Macintosh word-processing program. A student with some Macintosh experience but no knowledge of WORD can easily step through a tutorial to create, print, and save a file with WORD in less than an hour; students in my own rhetoric, business and technical writing, and desktop publishing classes have become comfortable with WORD by the second or third week of the semester. For beginners, a number of tutorial books are available from a variety of publishers: See, for example, Getting Started with Microsoft Word for the Apple Macintosh by Michael Boom, published by Microsoft, or Microsoft Word 5 for the Macintosh Made Easy, by Paul Hoffman, published by Osborne McGraw-Hill. For beginners without books nearby, WORD's online help is easily accessible and usually complete--like all online help systems, it's more useful to those who know what they're looking for than to those who don't know what to do next.

Many of WORD's features that would be most helpful to a first-year writing class are common to all Macintosh word-processing programs: word-wrap, cut-and-paste editing, and WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) display. Like many word-processing programs, WORD can also open more than one document at once, allowing cut-and-paste editing between documents (for example, between a Notes file and a draft of an assignment). Unlike many, it also allows you to split a window in order to see two sections of a document that might be many pages apart, and you can scroll and edit independently in the two halves of the split window (see Figure 5). A new feature in WORD 5.0 makes editing even easier: "drag and drop" editing allows you to highlight a portion of text and simply drag it to a new location in the document, bypassing the "Cut" and "Paste" commands. And WORD will automatically remind you to save your work at any interval you specify.


[Figure 5]

Figure 5. A Microsoft WORD document in a split window.

Some of WORD's more specialized features can also be useful in your introductory classes, particularly to simulate the operations of computer-assisted instruction software (Nydahl, 1990). [1] WORD's "Outline View" allows you to create a traditional hierarchical outline with up to nine levels for a new document and allows you to apply outlining information to designate the hierarchy of an existing document. You can collapse (hide) the body text or subheadings below any heading in an outline and expand them again, and you can promote or demote headings, change headings to body text, and rearrange the order of headings, all by clicking icons on the "Ruler" in the "Outline View" (see Figure 6). Because "Outline View" can be used with new or existing documents, it's a convenient tool to make students more aware of the structure of texts they create and texts they revise. And by using WORD's "Split Window" capability, a student can see both the "Outline View" and normal view of her or his document at once.


[Figure 6]

Figure 6. A Microsoft WORD document in "Outline View."

If you have WORD 5.1 running on System 7, you can use one of three methods--publishing and subscribing, linking, or embedding--to share information between different documents and even different users. "Publish and Subscribe" is likely to be the most useful method for writing classes because it requires no other applications and can be used by a single user or by a work group connected over an AppleTalk network. Imagine a group of students working on a collaborative project, each student responsible for writing a particular part of a document. Student 1 can "publish" his portion of the document, creating an "edition" that Students 2 and 3 can "subscribe" to; that is, while the edition stays on Student 1's hard disk, it is accessible via the network to Students 2 and 3, who can make it a part of their own documents. Whenever Student 1 makes changes to the published portion of Student 1's document (the "edition"), the documents that subscribe to the edition are automatically updated. Of course, such a system is not without its potential for chaos: Publishers and subscribers must agree on a protocol for changes, lest hapless subscribers suddenly find that one part of their document no longer bears any relation to the rest. In addition to collaborative writing assignments, "Publish and Subscribe" lends itself to class Bulletin Boards and Thought for the Day (or Assignment for the Week) files published by the teacher.

A new feature in version 5.1 seems tailor-made for group writing and editing. The "Annotation" feature allows a reviewer (either a teacher or a peer) with a file copy of the document to insert comments, queries, or any other text into the original document. The annotations are marked by a small icon (which may contain the annotator's initials) and displayed in a window that opens when the user double-clicks the annotation icon (see Figure 7). Student writers (or anyone else) can circulate a file copy of their work in progress for annotations by multiple readers, and can even export the annotations themselves to a separate file, with each annotation accompanied by the relevant text of the original document.


[Figure 7]

Figure 7. A text annotation in WORD 5.1; the annotation shows the date it was added and the annotator's initials.

Finally, there are three features your students may find most attractive--the spell checker, grammar checker, and thesaurus. None of them essential to any writing class, but the sooner your students learn of their advantages and pitfalls, the better. The WORD 5.0 spell checker was noticeably improved from version 4.0: The dictionary increased from 56,000 to 88,000 root words, and WORD 5.0 made better suggestions to correct misspelled words. In version 5.1, the spell checker is said to give greater feedback and to deal better with commands to ignore particular words, but I didn't find a noticeable difference in spell-checking documents with versions 5.0 and 5.1. Like all writers, you will invariably use words that the spell checker doesn't recognize, and adding these words to the custom dictionaries is as easy as selecting a dictionary's name and clicking on "Add" (see Figure 8). (You can enhance this feature with the "Microsoft Comprehensive Spelling" tool, an improved spell checker with an additional 74,000 medical, legal, and business terms, compatible only with WORD, from Alki Software for $69.95.) Like all spell checkers, however, WORD's speller can't examine a word's context to detect a mistaken there for their, or it's for its, and similar errors.


[Figure 8]

Figure 8. The "Spelling" dialog box.

WORD's grammar checker, added in version 5.0, can spot these; however, it is still far from a reliable tool and is one of the weakest features of the program. The grammar checker looks for 18 different faults of style, including wordiness, clichés, overused expressions, and misused foreign expressions, and 13 different grammatical problems, including passive verbs, subject-verb disagreement, split infinitives, and punctuation errors. You can turn off any of the rules of style or grammar, and you can configure three of them: split infinitives (by how many words), consecutive nouns, and prepositional phrases (by how many in a row). Not surprisingly, however, the errors that the grammar checker catches most reliably are the simplest. It has special difficulty recognizing complete sentences and detecting subject-verb agreement. Still, when the diagnosis is correct, the "Grammar" dialog box suggests reasonable corrections and provides clear and concise explanations of the rules that have been violated. The dialog box lets the user ignore the violation, make the suggested correction, skip to the next sentence, or ignore the rule for the rest of the check (see Figure 9). Unfortunately, this last function often appears not to work: The problem is that each of the grammar checker's 35 rules are actually rule groups; clicking on "Ignore Rule" disables only one subrule in the group. Neither the manual nor Microsoft's technical support personnel could tell me how many rules were in each group or what the rules were. The only use you're likely to get from the grammar checker in the current version of WORD is as an object lesson for your students in the limitations of such devices.


[Figure 9]

Figure 9. The "Grammar" dialog box.

The thesaurus is more reliable but susceptible to the same misuse as a printed version. WORD 4.0 came with a desk accessory called WORDFINDER, based on a list of 220,000 synonyms; now the thesaurus is a built-in command, based on a list of 200,000 synonyms. It indicates the part of speech of each word but gives no definitions and thus does not indicate differences in shades of meaning (see Figure 10). Students and teachers who are determined to be online wordsmiths might examine Alki Software's MICROSOFT COMPREHENSIVE THESAURUS (compatible only with WORD), based on a list of 600,000 synonyms, priced at $39.95, or one of the many online dictionaries (for example, WORDSTAR's online American Heritage Dictionary, which gives definitions for 116,000 words and includes Roget's II Thesaurus with 500,000 synonyms, all for under $100).


[Figure 10]

Figure 10. The "Thesaurus" dialog box.

WORD in Advanced Writing Classes

Because many of WORD's features are designed with business and professional writing in mind, students in advanced writing classes are likely to find uses for features that may not often be used in first-year writing classes. Among these are the ability to create style sheets, to sort items alphanumerically, and to create tables. WORD also allows you to create indexes and tables of contents that you can revise whenever the pagination of your document changes. And an improvement in the "Find" and "Replace" functions of WORD 5.0 allows you to search for specified character formatting as well as text: For example, you can search for all the underlined words in a document and change their format to italic.

Students in a business or technical writing class will be able to import graphics created by other applications (for example, tables or charts created by spreadsheet programs) into their text documents and link multiple files so that changes in one are automatically reflected in the other. This capability has been enhanced in version 5.1 with the addition of the "Graph" feature, which allows users to create two- and three-dimensional graphs in a number of styles directly in WORD (the styles available bear a remarkable similarity to those in Microsoft EXCEL). They can also create simple MACDRAW-type PICT graphics using the "Picture" command, added in version 5.0, and position the graphics so that text in one or more columns flows around the graphic (see Figure 11). Students whose writing focuses on math or the sciences will be able to use the EQUATION EDITOR, which can format complex equations with a professionally typeset look (see Figures 12 and 13). These and other formatting features make it easy to turn students' attention to a document's appearance as well as its content.

Students in my desktop publishing class began the semester with WORD, learning most of its basic features in two or three weeks, and then learned how WORD can produce complex document formats that a professional designer would ordinarily produce with Aldus PAGEMAKER or QUARKXPRESS. Here WORD's multiple-column formatting capability becomes useful, as well as its ability to apply rules, boxes, and gray shading, and to include Postscript formatting commands.


[Figure 11]

Figure 11. The "Picture" window.


[Figure 12]



[Figure 13]

Figure 13. An equation (the quadratic formula) from the EQUATION EDITOR.

In addition to the versatility resulting from its large collection of features, WORD's new modular design allows third-party developers to create "plug-ins" to perform specialized tasks, such as handling bibliographies, creating concordances, or keeping a record of deleted text--to imagine only a few. The same modular design allows users who don't need or want certain features to remove those modules from the Commands folder, thus disabling the command and reducing WORD's demand for memory.

Beyond the Writing Class

If all this sounds like a hymn to WORD, let me interrupt here: Don't buy WORD just to have the latest thing. If you already have software you can rely on and can't afford to replace, or if you're not going to use most of WORD's features, spend your money on more comfortable computer lab furniture. Consider, too, what hardware and software your students can easily get access to when they're not in your lab.

But if you want (and can afford) to broaden the range of students that your computer lab serves, consider WORD or another high-end, versatile word-processing program (such as NISUS, MACWRITE II, or WORDPERFECT). WORD can handle files from almost any Macintosh word-processing program you may be using now; it will give students skills they can use to work more efficiently in other classes and familiarity with a word-processing program they're likely to meet outside academia. It also will give you features you can use in almost any writing class as well as in your own work. If you have enough uses for WORD, you'll get your money's worth.

Michael R. Boudreau teaches in the English Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


  1. Nydahl's article deals with Microsoft WORD 5.0 for the IBM (and compatibles). Although the macro function he discusses is not a feature of WORD for the Macintosh, macro programs for use with any Macintosh application are available from a number of companies (see, for example, CE Software's QUICKEYS). Still, many other features of WORD for the Macintosh--glossaries and "Outline View," for example--can be used in ways that Nydahl suggests.


Nydahl, J. (1990). Teaching word processors to be CAI programs. College English, 52, 904-915.