How Can I Copy Text from a PDF while Preserving the Formatting?

PDF, the ubiquitous document format, is great for sharing documents while preserving fonts, images, and the general layout across platforms. Is there an easy way, however, to preserve that very formatting when copying and pasting text out of the document?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Colen is searching for a way to extract text from PDFs while preserving the formatting:

When I copy text out of a PDF file and into a text editor, it ends up mangled in a variety of ways. Formatting like bold and italics are lost; soft line breaks within a paragraph of text are converted to hard line breaks; dashes to break a word over two lines are preserved even when they shouldn’t be; and single and double quotes are replaced with ? signs.

Ideally, I’d like to be able to copy text from a PDF and have formatting converted to HTML codes, “smart quotes” converted to ” and ‘, and line breaks done properly. Is there any way to do this?

Is there a quick and easy way for Colen (and the rest of us) to get grab text without sacrificing the formatting?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Frabjous offers a solution combined with a heavy dose of caution:

Firstly, you have to understand what a PDF is. PDFs are designed to mimic a printed page, and they are designed only as an output format, not an input format. a PDF is basically a map containing the exact location of characters (individual letters or punctuation, etc.) or images. In most cases, a PDF does not even store information about where one word ends and another begins, much less things like soft breaks vs. hard breaks for paragraph endings.

(A few recent PDFs do store some information about this stuff, but that’s a new technology, and you’d be lucky to find PDFs like that. Even if you did, your PDF viewer might not know about it.)

Anyway, it’s up to your software to implement some kind of “artificial intelligence” to extract merely from the locations of individual characters what is a word, what is a paragraph, and so on. Different software is going to do this better than others, and it’s also going to depend on how the PDF was made. In any case, you should never expect perfect results. Having the output PDF is not the same as having the source document. Far better to try to obtain that if you can.

The standard solution to your kind of problem is to use Adobe Acrobat Professional (the expensive one, not the free reader) to convert the PDF to HTML. Even that is not going to get perfect results.

There is free software that can be used to extract text from PDFs with some of formatting intact, but again, don’t expect perfect results. See, e.g., calibre (which can convert to RTF format), pdftohtml/pdfreflow, or the AbiWord word processor (with all import/export plugins enabled). There’s also a PDF import plugin for OpenOffice.

But please don’t expect perfection with any of these results. You’re going against the grain here. PDF just is not meant as an editable input format.

If you are having trouble deciding which tool to start with, Calibre is a veritable document Swiss Army knife. You can also use it to convert PDF files for use on your ebook reader and organize your ebook/document library.


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Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.