Microsoft Office for Mac gets RTL word processing

Bilingual English-Hebrew keyboardI haven’t had many nice things to say about Microsoft Office for Mac in the last few years two decades. Despite the suite’s power and the fact that it outstrips it competition in many different ways, I’ve used other software in preference to Word, PowerPoint, and Excel for many years, largely because right-to-left text processing in Office for Mac has been poor nonexistent since the 1980s, even after the advent and wide adoption of Unicode. I have consistently made sure to have legitimate access to the latest version of Office (currently as a personal subscriber to Office 365) for collaborative purposes, but I almost never use it for my own independent work.

The March 2016 update to Office for Mac, however, brought Office’s support for right-to-left processing, specifically Hebrew and Arabic, into something close to the support these languages get on the Windows version of Office. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook now support complete right-to-left paragraphs or paragraphs that mix left-to-right and right-to-left languages without rearranging the words like Office apps did as recently as the initial release of Office 2016. Font specifications in Word, at least (I haven’t tried this in Excel or PowerPoint yet, and I don’t use Outlook at all), now include separate selection for one Latin script and one “complex” script, so that Word can automatically switch typefaces for you when you switch from English to Hebrew or Arabic (for example) and back again. This feature in Office is not, at present, anywhere near as robust as Nisus Writer Pro’s support for multiple languages, but ease of collaboration and some of Word’s other powerful features may be good reasons to prefer Word. It all depends on the use case.

Although I’m very happy about this update because it will make certain forms of collaboration and document submission a lot easier, I doubt I’ll be switching back to Word as my go-to word processor. One major reason is that Office for Mac still can’t handle SBL BibLit or its precursor typefaces properly. The נִקֻּדּוֹת don’t align properly, although Office handles them fine for Times New Roman, Adobe Hebrew, New Peninim MT, and other such typefaces. The difference may be in OpenType vs. TrueType. Still, Microsoft should be able to address this; SBL Hebrew/BibLit works fine on Word for Windows, I’m told, and it works fine on the Mac in Nisus Writer Pro, Mellel, and even Pages. Whether Microsoft cares to address this issue remains to be seen; the user base for SBL Hebrew/BibLit is so small that I doubt it’s a high priority.

So if you’ve been dreaming of a day when Word would support Unicode Hebrew on the Mac, rejoice! That day arrived about six weeks or so ago.

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