Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How to Show Non-Printing Characters in Google Docs

I recently received a question about how to show non-printing characters in Google Docs. This is a feature in Microsoft Word that can be very helpful when editing a document.

These characters could include:
  • Spaces
  • Tabs
  • Paragraphs marks
  • Tables without borders
  • Page breaks

Sometimes the text or alignment a document is "acting funny" because there are non-printing characters and elements that can't be seen but are affecting the layout of the page.

In Microsoft Word you can turn on this feature to temporarily display these normally invisible characters. When you can see the spaces and paragraph marks and tabs, sometimes that can help you to find the problem in the document, such as a hidden table or a long string of spaces.

Unfortunately this is one of the few Word features that is not natively included in Google Docs. Thankfully though there is a Google Docs add-on that can replicate this feature pretty well, at least until Google officially adds this to Docs. See below for details on how to use this helpful add-on.

Installing the "Show" Add-on

To be able to display non-printing characters in a Google Doc, you need to install the "Show" add-on as follows:
  • Open a Google Doc as normal.
  • Click "Add-ons" in the top menu bar, and choose "Get Add-ons" from the drop-down menu.
  • Rather than scroll through all the add-ons to find "Show" it will probably be quickest to simply type "Show" in the "Search add-ons" box in the top right.
  • Alternately you can use this link to go directly to the "Show" add-on: Google Docs Add-on link
  • When you find the "Show" add-on, click the "+ FREE" button to install it.
  • In the permissions windows, click "Allow".
  • The "Show" add-on will now be installed.

Before you can use the "Show" add-on you still have to "activate" it as follows:
  • Click "Add-ons" in the top menu bar.
  • Hover above "Show" in the list of installed add-ons.
  • Click "Activate Show extension".
  • Click "Yes" in the pop-up window.

Displaying Non-Printing Characters

You can use the "Show" add-on to display non-printing characters by doing the following:
  • Click "Add-ons" in the top menu bar.
  • Hover above "Show" in the drop-down menu.
  • Hover above "Show" again in the slide-out menu.
  • Choose the type of non-printing character you wish to see including Non-breakable spaces, Spaces, Tabs, Page breaks, and Line breaks.

  • After making your selection you Google Doc will update to show the chosen character type.
  • You can choose as many types of non-printing characters as you want to display multiple types at once.
  • If you want the non-printing characters to be highlighted green so you can see them easier, you can also choose the "Highlight symbols" menu option.

Below is an example showing all the different types of non-printing characters.

Hiding Non-Printing Characters

After you are done seeing the non-printing characters you will need to reverse the process to hide them again. Otherwise the symbols will remain in the document and will actually print out.

Note: The reason for this is because the "Show" add-on is actually replacing the non-printing characters with visible symbols through a "find and replace" procedure.

To hide the symbols when done do the following:
  • Click "Add-ons" in the top menu bar.
  • Hover above "Show" in the drop-down menu.
  • Click "Hide all" to hide any and all non-printing characters in the document.


Google continually adds new features to Docs, so hopefully there will be a built-in way to show non-printing characters in the future, and this blog post will become obsolete. However for now, the "Show" add-on is an option we can use to simulate this function.

Post by Eric Curts. Bring me to your school, organization, or conference with over 50 PD sessions to choose from. Connect with me on Twitter at and on Google+ at


  1. "Google continually adds new features to Docs". That must be sarcasm!!! They seems to have zero interest in developing G Docs (or spreadsheet, or slides) to be anything useful.

    1. We must have very different measures for what it means to develop a product. I cover all of the new Google updates each month in our Google Educator Group meetings. You can see lists of updates for each month in my posts here:
      So no, that was not sarcasm. In my opinion Google continues to improve their products, which benefit schools around the world.

  2. So helpful- I needed this for a project I did last month. Thanks so much!

  3. Thank you, what an awesome tool. I was working on a huge project and it would have come in very handy. Thank you for all you post.

  4. Thanks for the tip, it's a feature I've missed from Word for several years. I'm finding the Show All does not actually show all. I need to turn on each non-printing mark separately.

  5. I added it but I am not seeing spaces, only paragraph marks.

  6. Never mind, I found how to see spaces.

  7. I'm trying to find a way to embed text into docs/templates that WON'T be printed out - does anyone know how to do that?

  8. Can't get this to work on my Mac. I'm operating with El Capitan. Might that be the problem? Or, maybe I'm just missing a step somehow...