IT’S GEEK TO ME: Recovering altered and corrupted files

Question: Some of my files are turning into files I can’t open. I get this message in a box:

“Word experienced an error in trying to open the file. Try these suggestions.

  • Check the file permissions for the document or drive.
  • Make sure there is sufficient free memory and disk space.
  • Open the file with the Text Recovery converter.

(C:\\Users\…\SPLITTING NAILS.docx)”

I have tried all these suggestions but they didn’t help. Thanks ahead of time.

– Norma M.

Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Answer: In order for programs to be able to save and load files, the manner in which the data are written must be consistent and known to the program. This is called the file format and is indicated by the file extension. In the case of Microsoft Word, its primary file extension is .docx, and it knows how to open and read properly formatted .docx files.

I can tell you with certainty that files cannot spontaneously turn into a format other than that in which they were originally written, Norma. Once a program writes a file, it sits idle in storage until it is acted upon by something else. Under normal circumstances, it is the same program that wrote it in the first place. Since that program knows the format, it’s a simple matter for it to read the file back in and display the contents to you.

While I’m still on the subject of files and their extensions, I think it’s important to mention that a file having a particular extension does not guarantee that the file’s contents are automatically in that format. For example, you could take any file, be it a .txt file, or a .jpg, or whatever, and rename it with a .docx extension. This indicates that the file is a Word document, but when Word tries to open it, it will not find any data in the format it expects, and you’ll probably get an error message, perhaps even the exact one you cited in your question. When this happens, the file is usually referred to as corrupted.

As I said earlier, programs knowing the expected format of data in a file is the normal circumstance. Since your computer is having difficulty reading-back files, this falls squarely in the abnormal category. I note that Microsoft was kind enough to program Word with some suggestions of common abnormal circumstances. It just so happens that I discussed the first – the issue of file permissions – in a couple of recent issues (Geek Note: I.G.T.M. #850, November 5, 2023 and I.G.T.M. #847 – October 15, 2023). As for the second, the specs that you sent me on your system say that you have plenty of free memory and disk space available to perform the simple action of opening a file.

That leaves trying the Text Recovery converter. Now, while you said “I have tried all these suggestions” I wonder whether you actually tried the Text Recovery converter, since it’s a rather obscure feature in Word, and one that most people have never heard of, much less know how to use it. Rather than spending limited column space discussing it, I’m going to refer you to an article at that has comprehensive information on how to recover text from corrupt word documents using the Text Recovery converter.

I hope you are able to recover the contents of your files, Norma. However, there’s a big question still hanging over your issue. Since files cannot change themselves, and the program that writes them knows and uses the correct format, how are your files getting corrupted? There is little or anything that happens in the operating of a PC that corrupts files. The few things I can think of are things like shutting off power without closing your documents, or unplugging USB devices while a file is in the middle of being written. Presuming that nothing like this is going on, you probably want to do a deep dive on your computer looking for a malware infestation. It’s a trivial matter for a rogue software to open files and rewrite their data. This changes the format, effectively locking-out the original software from being able to read it. And it does sound like something is giving your files the business. It’s probably not going to stop on its own.

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