Applying character styles over character styles

There may be occasions where more than one character style has to be applied to the same words, such as a highlight, italic, etc. I recently saw this request over at the InDesign requests page.

In the request, the requestor does hint at a way that this can already be achieved in InDesign, though it can be time consuming. Let’s start from the beginning and look at some text that has an italic character style applied to it.

But if I apply a separate highlight character style that I’ve also made…

The highlight appears but the italic is removed. Reapplying the italic character style to the word only changes the word back to italic and doesn’t preserve the underline.

One solution is to do a local override – that is to manually apply the appearance but without using a character style

Note the plus that appears to the right of the Paragraph Style 1 – this indicates a local override is present.

That works, but let’s say that the client asks for all italics to now be a tint of the colour initially used. That’s fine if character styles were applied as the italic style needs to be changed once in the properties of the character style. However, all the italics applied using local overrides will need to have their fills reapplied with the new settings.

Yes, the eyedropper tool and find/change can assist, but if character styles were applied, these additional steps would not be necessary.

In this circumstance, making a third style that has both the underline and italic would make sense.

In this case, it adds one more character style – not a big deal, but in a large document, the quantity of character styles can grow fast.

GREP Styles to the rescue

Take this chemical equation in a science textbook. It currently looks like this:

The subscripts in this equation have been applied with a character style that I’ve named sub. However, the author wants the reaction only in bold. If the equation is highlighted and then has a bold character style applied, this happens:

All of the subscript formatting of the numbers are lost.

I can then create a second style called “bold sub” that has bold and subscript properties and base the style on the bold formatting, but I then have to make sure I correctly apply the newly created style to the appropriate numbers… this now introduces a level of human error.

But what if I could apply the bold style and keep the subscripts? It is possible using GREP styles. Using the GREP code from this CreativePro post (look for Laurent Tournier’s post dated Oct 9 2010 in the comments) apply it to the paragraph style.

[editor’s note – I’ve adjusted mine to account for the naming of elements 113-118 as of 2018, so if you want that amended code, contact me via my contact page]

Now apply the paragraph style to the recently bolded text.

Brilliant! Note how the I-beam cursor is between two subscript numbers, yet the character style shows that this is bold only.

This technique can also be applied to other formatting where subscripts or superscripts need to be preserved, such as:

  • Ordinal Numbers
  • Numbers written with scientific notation
  • Squared or cubed measurements

It just requires the right GREP syntax. All of the above examples used GREP styles to format the subscripts and superscripts only. To learn this technique and others, apply to join the Treasures of GREP Facebook page.

Once again to illustrate the point, the author wants these six lines in bold. By highlighting the lines and applying the bold character style, the subscripts and superscripts stay in tact.

Nested styles

Similarly, this can also be achieved with Nested styles. Take the last two lines in the last example prior to applying the bold – if I want the ordinal number at the start of the line to be bold, I don’t have to write a GREP style but I can use a nested style such as the one below.

That will give me this result without applying any manual character styles to the text:

There are catches to this technique

The first catch is that the character styles must have the minimal amount of style changes only. That is the sub character style only changes the position of the character to subscript, so that is the only item that style will apply, while maintaining the rest of the paragraph style’s formatting.

The second catch is to be aware of the style hierarchy. The following list is in order of what style overrules another (from most to least dominant):

  • Local override
  • Local character style
  • Nested style
  • GREP style lowest in list in the paragraph style settings
  • GREP style highest in list in the paragraph style settings

There can be several advantages to layering character styles by using GREP styles:

  • Less character styles.
  • Time saving for commonly formatted items such as ordinal numbers.
  • Consistency based on GREP patterns for words.

Similarly, there can be drawbacks with this technique:

  • Looks for particular words or phrases, so not appropriate for instances where dozens of words or phrases may make more GREP styles than are manageable.
  • Applies to paragraph styles, if used over many paragraph styles, the GREP style needs to be applied repeatedly. Scripts can help with this, such as one I wrote on my scripts page, or GREP Editor from Peter Kahrel.
  • Can’t take a bold style and italic style and combine them – it can only apply additional attributes that weren’t there previously.
  • GREP styles (along with live preflight, page thumbnails, dynamic spellcheck and any other service that has to run while the document is being composed) can slow the processing speed of the machine, particularly on larger documents.

Find spaces only (no returns or tabs) with InDesign’s GREP

When learning GREP, the syntax for a space is usually shown as \s. This works in most situations, but it is worth pointing out that this syntax represents any space, including tabs and returns, not just horizontal space between words. For finding spaces only but ignoring returns and tabs, we need a different GREP string.

Take the following example where there are double spaces (or worse) in a text frame. With the assistance of the GREP editor script from Peter Kahrel, we can identify every result that will be found using the \s syntax plus the {2,} (identifies two or more of the same result).

The yellow highlights show the search results and while the double spaces have been identified, so have the double returns and space plus returns. If all of these spaces were to change to single spaces, all returns would be lost and the type would all be in one paragraph – an unintended result.

There is a pre-made GREP search built into the find/change dialog and it is called Multiple Space to Single Space, and the code looks like this:

[~m~>~f~|~S~s~<~/~.~3~4$ ]{2,}

If this is keyed into the GREP editor, the result is as follows:

The double spaces and longer can now be found without accidentally selecting returns or tabs, but the GREP code is quite unwieldy. Perhaps it can be copied each time it is required – let’s go to the find/change dialog box, call up the Multiple Space to Single Space search and copy the result.

Now let’s paste it into the GREP editor

The syntax hasn’t placed, but instead been represented by the actual characters that the GREP code represented. I can type the required syntax manually, but it’s a long piece of code that I don’t want to remember all of the time.

Use \p{Zs} instead

InDesign’s GREP allows for specific Unicode properties that aren’t available from the find/change dialog box, but they are accessible via the GREP editor script. Click on the insert wildcard or character class button in the top left of the GREP editor dialog box.

A new dialog box will open. From here, unfurl the Unicode properties, then unfurl the separator, and choose Space Separator.

This dialog also includes other Unicode properties that may be of interest, but for now it reveals that the syntax to use is \p{Zs}. Let’s try that in the GREP editor, along with the {2,} to find two or more instances of the same syntax.

Fantastic, it has done the same thing that InDesign’s Multiple Space to Single Space has done with a quarter of the syntax.

Additionally, now that the syntax is known, we don’t have to go through the GREP editor subdialog each time, the syntax is easy to remember – \p{Zs}.

Lastly

The GREP editor script is a fantastic utility made by Peter Kahrel that allows users to see the results of GREP code in real-time, and also provides access to snippets of GREP code that aren’t available from InDesign’s own find/change panel. An added bonus is that searches can also be directly applied to paragraph styles as GREP styles, rather than copying the syntax and pasting it into the paragraph style (or rewriting it on paper and re-keying it because the GREP gets translated into what it actually represents). I highly recommend this script and if you find it useful as well, make sure you let Peter know by making a donation his way.

Additionally, Peter is the author of GREP in InDesign: an InDesignSecrets guide – a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to learn how to use GREP in Adobe InDesign; or to build more sophisticated searches. If you would like to purchase a copy of this title, please click on this affiliate link here.

GREPgraphing – Beyond 2000

In 2016, I developed a concept of creating bar graphs using GREP styles. Put simply, when a number was typed such as 1423, several different GREP styles would kick in to transform the number into a bar graph. In the above example:

  • if there’s a one for the 1 followed by three digits, make the one character 1000% wide;
  • If there’s a 4 followed by two digits, make the four character 400% wide;
  • If there’s a 2 followed by one digit, make the two character 20% wide;
  • If there’s a 3 as the last character, make the three 3% wide.

To successfully work with any whole number between 1-1999, this technique requires creating 29 different types of GREP styles and character styles. It uses a fixed width font and takes advantage of GREP styles to adjust the width of the numbers to represent them as their appropriate value as a bar graph. I’ve written about this technique in more detail over at InDesignSecrets.

In 2018, I expanded upon this idea and made a script so that anyone wishing to use the technique without typing the 29 character and GREP styles could simply run a script:

Beyond 2000

One catch with this technique is that it stops at 1999 as the character style to represent 2000 can’t be made by creating a 2000% width as the maximum character width is 1000%. However, there is a workaround – create a new character style called 2000, based on the 1000 style, but give it a tracking of 600.

Adjust the GREP graph paragraph style and underneath the 1000% GREPstyle, make a new one using the new 2000% character style that was made and give it the following pattern:

2(?=\d\d\d\b)

To test this, I have two different GREPgraph styles containing the 1000 figure and have put them side by side. In the text frame underneath, if I type 2000 into the text frame with the GREPgraph beyond 2000 style applied to it, it should be the same width, right?

Absolutely. If I make an additional 3000% character style based on the 2000% style but changed its tracking to 1200, and added a GREPstyle to the paragraph style to apply the 3000% character style to the pattern 3(?=\d\d\d\b), this will work too.

From here, a pattern can now be seen: to get to the next 1000 in width, add another 600 to the tracking of that thousand’s character style and add a new GREP style pattern to the GREPgraph style. This will work until the tracking hits its maximum of 10,000.

Doing all this in less GREP steps

As stated earlier, the original technique required 29 GREP styles to create a GREPgraph, but what if I said it was possible to achieve the numbers 1-1999 (actually a few more – 2047) using 12 GREP styles? This can be done too, but requires a technique in Excel, and that is to convert the original base-10 number into a 16-bit binary number. I’d actually described this technique back in 2011, but it was implemented differently and with more complications: this method is far simpler.

First, convert the desired base-10 number to a 16-bit binary number in Excel using the following formula:

=DEC2BIN(A1/256,8)&DEC2BIN(MOD(A1,256),8)

Now that the number is displayed in binary, copy the binary number into InDesign.

The technique basically works the same way as the original GREPgraph technique but has a slightly different implementation. First, the character styles need to be created that will change the widths, but instead of making 1-9, 10-90, 100-900 and 1000, only the character styles 0, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512 and 1024 need to be created. For example, the character style 32 will only contain the width of 32%, and this pattern will apply to the other numbers mentioned.

Zero and 1024 are the exceptions. Zero will have a character style featuring a .1pt size, no fill or stroke, and 1% width. 1024 will have a character style of 1000% and a tracking of 14.

This will create a total of 12 character styles.

Now to make the paragraph style. To keep it simple, the appearance of the bar graph will controlled by the paragraph rule (though more advanced methods can be made using combinations of rule above, below, underlines and strikethroughs).

Here is where the magic happens – the GREP styles. Here are the styles and how they are implemented in the GREP style panel of the Paragraph style.

And here is the result:

So what’s happening here?

It’s important to understand how binary numbers are written compared to base-10 numbers. The following site gives a really good explanation, and that’s all that’s happening here – the GREP styles are being applied to the 1s in the binary number, based on their position in the binary number, and applying the appropriate GREP widths.

It can go larger

Just like the regular GREP graph, this too can be expanded to numbers larger than 2000 by creating an additional character style that has an added tracking applied. In this case, to represent the numbers 1-4095, a further character style can be added: 2048.

An advantage of this technique is that instead of creating an additional 9 character/GREP styles for each power of 10 using the base-10 GREP styles, the binary method will require a new style every time the total doubles e.g. 14th GREP style would be 4096, 15th GREP style would be 8192…

The obvious disadvantage with this technique: the numbers to be displayed as bar graphs have to be written out in binary first.

Is this something I would use? Probably not myself, as GREPgraphs are normally enough for my purposes, but I often hear the question “what if you need more than 1999 in a graph” so I felt that it was worth answering the question: It can be done, but it’s a lot of effort to get there.

Please fix Text Variables so they behave like regular text

Within the type menu of Adobe InDesign is the Text Variables feature. This allows users to insert a special character that will display one of the following items:

  • A chapter number
  • A file-related date such as the creation date, modification date or output date
  • Filename
  • Image Name (aka captions setup)
  • Last Page Number
  • Running Header based on either a used paragraph or character style
  • Custom static text

Unfortunately, there is an unwanted behaviour of the text variables – InDesign treats them as a single character rather than the actual content within the variable. This has a few unwanted consequences:

  • Long variables that would normally break over several lines are squished into one line;
  • They cannot be formatted using GREP or Nested styles, nor can specific words be manually selected for formatting.

It’s an issue that is “in backlog” by the Adobe InDesign team to address, but that was first stated in 2017.

If the issue was resolved, it would have enabled my GREPGraph solution to be applied in the following InDesignSecrets article.

As it turns out, it is also affecting another solution that would make lives easier for anyone who has to create diaries and planners on a regular basis.

The brief:

A planner is created by making a base template and then creating threaded text for the dates that are represented only by numbers. This makes populating a diary from week to week relatively easy…

…until the other material has to be populated, such as what month it is, what term it is, and what week it is. This is best illustrated in the first two minutes of a Youtube video by Rob Cubbon.

Incidentally in Rob’s video, he uses frame breaks between each record, but that isn’t required. Instead, adjust the paragraph style of the numbers by going to the Keep Options and from the Start Paragraph dropdown, select In Next Frame.

The technique:

Instead of populating the text frames simply with numbers, what if the frames were populated with more information that can be called upon by running header text variables, such as the month?

I can make a list in excel that contains the day of the week and the month in one column. This is also done without a space intentionally for reasons that will become evident soon.

I can then copy this text to my InDesign file. However, note that the text overflows and isn’t correct – that is because the flowing numbers need to have a character style that will hide the text that we want to be visible elsewhere. To do this, I’ve created a character style called hidden, and its properties are:

  • .1 point high;
  • 1% wide;
  • No fill or stroke.

That’s fine, but applying that manually to everything but the numbers will be a nuisance, so the paragraph style for the numbers has to be modified using Nested Styles.

The nested style will apply a style of [None] to the digits as they need to be visible, but will intentionally hide the month.

So why I am I intentionally hiding the month? Because I’m only interested in the information it represents, and this can be called upon by a text variable. I will go to the master page and insert a text variable for a running header showing me the first result of hidden on the page.

The issue with the technique

That’s fine until I get to a spread that contains two months. I’d rather both months be present rather than the earlier month. For example, I’d like the headline to read April/May instead of April. I can do this by returning to my master page, apply my blinking text cursor to the text variable that is already there, type a slash and then create a new text variable that is a running header looking for hidden character style in the last instance.

Once I’ve inserted the variable and returned to that spread, that now looks fine, but all others are now affected.

I should be able to make a GREP style that will look for a word, then a backslash, and the same word it initially found. I’ll create a new text frame with some sample text to see if it works. The GREP code I’ll use is this:

Apply style: Hidden

GREP: (.+?)\K\/\1

Looks like its working in my demo, but as I check the document it isn’t… I’ll find a spread where I know the months split.

But that should work. I saw it work on plain text, why isn’t it working on text variables? That’s because GREP styles and Nested Styles don’t work on text variables. If I want this technique to work, I’ll have to use a workaround.

The workarounds:

  • Use a script to convert the text variables to plain text. Marijan Tompa used to have such a product via the Adobe Exchange, but it has since been removed, and it is not mine to give away. Other scripts do exist on the Adobe InDesign forums, but they are not as flexible as Marijan’s original script. It also works only one way, and can’t convert the text back to variables.
  • Don’t attempt to use the GREP style to hide the duplicate month, but instead only add a Running Header for the first instance on a page and add the others manually by overriding the affected master pages;
  • Create the desired date in Excel using a formula.

The issue with the first two solutions is that it prevents the solution from remaining live. The last solution will work but requires in-depth knowledge of Excel and – for many diaries – requires having an Excel file on stand-by for this purpose.

Ultimately, I’d love to see a fix for this issue as it would open up many possibilities. If you feel that this needs attention now rather than later, please cast your vote here.

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