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Like most people, I use copy and paste a lot in my day to day life, but I can't think of a single time that I have wanted to copy the formatting over with the content. Instead, I always seem to have to go through some paste special option that often doesn't have a keyboard shortcut.

Why doesn't pasting (Ctrl-V or Command-V) default to unformatted text?

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FYI, if you want a simple way to paste unformatted text, you can use a utility program like PureText. –  Ajedi32 Jan 3 '13 at 20:00

6 Answers 6

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I can think of a few reasons.

  1. It's a simpler mental model. You copy something and you paste it. You don't paste the result of some transformation of the object you copied, you get the exact same object you picked up. Simpler actions are better in that they are more predictable and less confusing. It's called "paste", it's not called "remove formatting and paste". In the same way that the right-click menu in Google Chrome address bar has the action "paste" and the separate action "paste and go" (if you copied a URL), although there's hardly a reason to paste a URL into the address bar if you don't mean to go there. I can think of some cases, but they're pretty rare compared to the "go to" scenario.

  2. It's a safe route to take. It's hard for us to anticipate the users' wishes. If you change what they copied, you may or may not get it right. And there is a lot of different use cases. "Assumption is the mother of all **-up", they say. And if you get it wrong, users get annoyed at you for thinking you know them. When you're making no changes to the item, you're making no assumptions, you let the user have exactly what he had in the first place.

  3. Apps like Photoshop. A layer has many different properties. Would you remove any of those when you paste? Which ones? The same for Excel cells - do you default to the formula, the value or the formatting? An intuitive default for you may not be the intuitive default for someone else.

  4. Not everyone understands the notion of copying a style, or just the formatting. It takes a certain level of technical understanding and of abstract thought. So when people want to use the same formatting they have on a piece of text, they'll copy it and then change the text. It's basically the layman's hack for reproducing a formatting that is difficult to define.

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1 for mentioning option 4 –  kontur Dec 20 '12 at 6:58
    
I tend to agree with you, as everything you write sounds quite reasonable. Nevertheless, I find it extremely disturbing and stupid to copy over the style of a text between stylewise completely unrelated documents. I'd argue that the assumption that the user desires to copy over a style is wrong 95% of the time. (It can only be right if the styles of source and target documents match, which I assume is the exception.) Given that copying unformatted text almost always yields exactly the desired result (by adopting the current style), I think the behavior of the OSes is rather unfortunate. –  ilmiacs May 16 at 14:22
    
Also, the original question was related to copying text. Arguments based on the desired copy&paste behavior of URLs or photoshop layers may be relevant if you are trying to derive a general principle. But I think following such principles also can be an obstacle. In this case I would make a distinction. –  ilmiacs May 16 at 14:31

I believe it's because people assume you will copy/paste between the same app (or even the same document) often, so it's better to preserve the formatting and sometimes it's hard (or even impossible due to clipboard API, etc) to find out the source (i.e. copy from) app and decide whatever you should paste raw data or keep formatting untouched.

Personally, I hate this too sometimes (usually a copy/paste between two different apps, like web browser and e-mail client).

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As said above i believe it's because it is often assumed you will be copying and pasting in the same application and therefore you will want to keep the same formatting rather than having to do so yourself. I can see that it is designed to save the user but personally i would prefer to have it unformatted when i copy and paste and either select an option to keep the formatting or format it myself.

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Or, you might ask why isn't there a "paste as plain text" option, and the reason is because it won't be as frequently used as the paste with format option.
In Windows (I guess that other OSs do the same) when you copy something, it's set in the clipboard in different formats, to allow the paste step to choose the one that fits the most.
For example when you copy browser content, the browser loads multiple versions in the clipboard, like an HTML version, a plain text one, and maybe more. If you paste into a Notepad window it puts the plain text, else the more formatted one. I have noticed that copying from the browser and pasting in Office apps does a decent format preservation effort that years before it only happened between IE and Office.
Like for example when you copy a browser table and paste it in Excel. in this case one does not complain about format preservation.
If you want to get rid of the format you can paste in and cut from Notepad as an intermediate stage. Instead of cut & paste you cave copy & paste & cut & paste.

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The formatting can provide semantic meaning to the copied text that is lost in plain text.

Bold, underlined and italic text can convey many meanings in text (e.g. titles, foreign language words and emphasis) that is lost if the formatting is discarded. What's more, this can have a profound impact on content written, for instance, in Word and pasted into a CMS for use on the web. Authors can't always tell that their copy has changed style just by looking at it.

Colour also has a similar use; how many times have we received an email saying something like "my comments are in red", only to find the email's formatting was removed somewhere along the way?

While typeface rarely conveys any special meaning for the text itself, symbol/dingbat fonts often repurpose existing characters to represent symbols. I receive emails from Outlook users ending in the letter "J" all the time because the sender used a smiley face, and Office automatically substitutes it with a character in Windings.

Tabular information especially can lose its meaning when it is converted to plain text. The spacial relationship between cells is lost removing a dimension of the data.

In general, preserving the formatting of copied text is required to adhere to the principle of least surprise (in most cases). Where formatting is likely to be surprising (e.g. in Notepad or in InDesign), it should be (and often is) suppressed.

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These are all valid UX centric answers. UX is not always the driver in technology decisions. It takes the least amount of engineering effort to copy everything and paste everything. I bet that was the driver in these decisions.

It's the UX folks that probably originated the paste special option you see in some applications... they probably had to fight for it.

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I'd downvote this comment but I don't have the reputation (yet). The response portrays a particularly negative view of the engineering folks. Not all engineering decisions are made because "it takes the least amount of engineering effort ..." –  Bill Dagg Dec 29 '12 at 0:11
    
No offense to engineering folks intended, I am one. However my choice of words is perhaps cynical. What I should say is that the what you copy is what you paste decision is the solution that is most concise, least chance of error or omission that solves a software issue. I upped your comment to add to your rep. –  Itumac Dec 29 '12 at 5:09
    
Virtual downvote rescinded. ;-) –  Bill Dagg Dec 30 '12 at 0:56

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