Number Alignment (Ribbon)

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Note: This article is for all versions of Word that use the Ribbon (that is, Word 2007 and above).
For  Word versions that have toolbars (2003 and earlier), see Number Alignment.

Keeping Numbers in Line

Word offers a number of ways to align text in documents, using paragraph alignment, tabs, indents, and tables. But the alignment of numbers can be a special challenge. This article discusses two different types of number alignment:

Numbered lists

If you don’t have much experience with, or very frequent need for, numbered lists, you probably apply auto numbering using the Numbering button in the Paragraph group on the Home tab of the Ribbon (Figure 1).

Paragraph group of Home tab showing Numbering button

Figure 1. Paragraph group of Home tab showing Numbering button

This can be risky in a number of ways, not least of which is that the button alone always applies whatever numbering style was last selected from the gallery (which may not be the one you want this time), but even if you select the "right" number format, it may not be suitable for your list. The built-in number formats work great for short lists—nine items or fewer—but when you get to 10 or more, one or both of two things happen (see Figure 2):

  1. The numbers are no longer aligned on the period or other punctuation following them.

  2. There may be a much larger space after the double-digit numbers than the single-digit ones.

This article will tell you how to solve both problems. Ideally, you should apply numbering by using a specific style that includes your customized number format, but Word 2007 also provides "list styles" that can apply numbering to any paragraph style, and numbering can also be applied manually to any style.

Equalizing the space

Let’s deal with the second problem first; this is an issue often seen in numbered headings. Suppose you apply numbering to Heading 1 using the default numbering style. The result will look like Figure 2. The reason for this is that the numbering has a hanging indent at 0.5″, allowing only 0.25″ between the left side of the first digit (which is at 0.25″) and the right side of the tab character following the number and period. This is adequate for numbered paragraphs in body text (using 12-point Times New Roman), but the heading uses much larger type. So the numbers 1–9, with following period and tab character, fit comfortably within this 0.25″ space, but when the numbers reach two digits, the combination becomes wider than 0.25″ and so the tab goes to the next default tab stop, at 1″.

 Numbered Heading 1s showing incorrect alignment

Figure 2. Numbered Heading 1s showing incorrect alignment

The solution for this problem is to increase the size of the hanging indent. In many cases, you can right-click in a paragraph and choose Adjust List Indents… from the shortcut menu, which opens the Adjust List Indents dialog (Figure 3). You may want to make your numbering flush left. If so, as shown in the dialog, you will need to set "Number position" to 0" and "Text indent" to something more than 0.25"; it may be that as little as 0.3" will be enough to solve the problem.

Adjust List Indents dialog showing appropriate settings

Figure 3. Adjust List Indents dialog showing appropriate settings

Unfortunately, the Adjust List Indents command is not on the shortcut menu when the insertion point is in a heading style. If this is a throwaway document, it may be safe to make the change in the paragraph formatting instead, but be sure this change is made to the heading style itself and not applied to paragraphs as direct formatting. There are two ways to accomplish this: (1) make the change by dragging the indent marker on the ruler, then right-click the heading style in the Styles gallery or window and choose "Update Heading 1 to Match Selection," or (2) right-click the style and choose Modify..., then, in the Modify Style dialog, choose Format | Paragraph and define a different hanging indent.

Another approach (which I am grateful to fellow Word MVP Stefan Blom for suggesting) is to force Word to display the Adjust List Indents command by assigning a keyboard shortcut to it. Although the command is not available for adding to the QAT, it is listed under All Commands in the Customize Keyboard dialog.

If this is an important document that needs to be very stable, or if numbering will be applied to more than one heading level, it is preferable to use a Multilevel List in order to associate the list formatting with the style(s). To do this, first remove any simple numbering from the style. Then apply numbering as follows:

  1. In the Paragraph group on the Home tab, click the arrow beside the Multilevel List button and choose Define New Multilevel List.

  2. On the left, under Level, 1 should be selected (see Figure 4).

Define New Multilevel List dialog

Figure 4: Define New Multilevel List dialog

  1. Change the “Number style” if desired.

  2. Change the punctuation following the number as desired.

  3. Change the indent settings as needed. By default, the number will be flush left, with a tab stop and hanging indent at 0.25″. As seen above, you will need more than 0.25".

  4. Click More, which will open the right side of the dialog. You have a choice of character following the bullet or number; if you select “Tab character” (it is selected by default), a tab stop is set by default at the "text indent" position, but if you check the box for “Add tab stop at,” you can set a different location.

  5. Very important: In the box for “Link level to style,” select your heading style

  6. You may also want to assign a name for your outline list (such as Headings).

  7. If your lower-level headings will also be numbered, repeat the process for Level 2, linking it to Heading 2, and so on.

Note: A shortcut to applying numbering to heading styles is to click in a Heading 1 paragraph, open the Multilevel List "library" on the Home tab, and choose one of the styles that show headings. This will give you list numbering that is already linked to your headings. A further advantage is that the default indent is set at 0.3" to accommodate the larger font sizes of headings. If you do need to modify the formatting of this list, however, you can use Define New Multilevel List to fine-tune the numbering and/or indent settings.

Even when you have corrected the alignment problem in the headings themselves, the problem may be replicated in a table of contents. Word generates tab stops in TOC styles dynamically, based on your layout and content. It sets a right-aligned tab stop at the right margin and a left indent that allows space for the paragraph number, punctuation (if any), and tab character. In Word 2007, this space is generally adequate even for double-digit numbers at unreasonably large font sizes, so you may not encounter the problem illustrated in Figure 4.

TOC with uneven indents

Figure 5. TOC with uneven indents

If you do, however, you will have to correct the setting. On the ruler, drag the tab stop following the numbers to a new position until the TOC is straightened out.

Important Note: By default, all the TOC styles are set to update automatically. This means that, in general, any change you make in a single TOC entry at a given level will be propagated to all other entries at that level (this applies to paragraph formatting; changes in font formatting are not always propagated).

If some entries are long enough to run over to a second line, you may want to add a hanging indent (at the same position as the tab stop), as well as a right indent to make the text wrap short of the page numbers; this can be done using the ruler or through the Paragraph dialog (right-click in any TOC entry and choose Paragraph). Note that if you use the ruler you will probably have to move the right tab stop in order to grab the right indent marker; be sure to move it back once you have the indent adjusted to your satisfaction. For this reason, it is usually easier to use the Paragraph dialog to change the right indent. For more on this type of formatting, see “TOC Tips and Tricks.”

Aligning on punctuation

Even when you have properly aligned the text following the numbers, the numbers still don’t look very nice. It is preferable to have them aligned on the periods or other punctuation following them (or the right edge of the number if there is no punctuation). This is also easily done.

You can create a right-aligned number format using the Define New Number Format command  in the Home | Paragraph | Numbering gallery. One of the few choices you actually have in the Define New Number Format dialog is Left, Center, or Right alignment for the numbering (Figure 5).

Define New Number Format dialog showing right alignment

Figure 6. Define New Number Format dialog showing right alignment

In a multilevel list, however, you have complete control over your number formatting. Return to the Define New Multilevel List dialog and choose “Right” for the number position. Depending on circumstances, this change may result in changes in the other settings, or you may have to fine-tune them yourself. You can experiment to figure out what combination of "Number alignment," “Aligned at,” and “Text indent at” will work best for the text in question. If you are using the default numbering style, which has “Aligned at” set at 0.25″, there will be plenty of room between the right side of the number and your left margin for single- or double-digit numbers. Using 12-point Times New Roman, 0.1″ is usually sufficient space between the number and the following text, so a setting of 0.35″ for “Tab space after” and “Indent at” will be good. For larger text, such as headings, you will need to adjust accordingly (the default settings for heading numbering in Word 2007 are 0.2" for "Aligned at" and 0.3" for "Text indent at").

Tabular text

Right-aligned tabs

If you let Word create a table of contents, table of figures, or index for you, you will see that, by default, it puts the page numbers at the right page or column margin, with a row of dots between the titles and the page numbers. To do this, it uses a right-aligned tab stop with a period leader. You can achieve the same effect when you need to create a table of contents manually or for similar applications such as programs, menus, price lists, and the like (see Figure 10). Here’s how:

  1. Set a right-aligned tab at the right margin (or wherever you want the numbers to end). There are two ways to do this:

  • Set the tab stop on the horizontal ruler. If the ruler is not displayed, choose View | Show | Ruler. At the left side of the ruler is a square button with an L icon; when this button is in effect, you will set a left tab anywhere you click on the ruler. In order to set a right tab, click the button twice to get a backwards L, then click on the ruler at the position where you want the tab stop. You can click near the right margin and then use the mouse to drag the tab stop to the exact position.

Ruler showing tab right tab button and right tab.

Figure 7. Ruler showing tab right tab button and right tab.

  • Open the Tabs dialog. There are two right ways to do this and one wrong way (see Important Caveat). The right ways are to (a) use the old keyboard shortcut Alt+O+T (which may or may not work in current versions) or (b) double-click on an existing tab stop on the ruler. In the Tabs dialog (see Figure 8), type the position for the tab stop in the “Tab stop position” box. Select “Right” under “Alignment.

Important Caveat: If you search Word's Help for information on how to access the Tabs dialog, it will tell you to click the Tabs...  button in the Paragraph dialog. If you do this, you'll encounter a nasty little bug: the current settings in the Paragraph dialog are set as the document defaults for the attached template, usually Normal.dotm.

Tabs dialog with appropriate settings

Figure 8. Tabs dialog with appropriate settings

  1. Give the tab a period leader (if desired):

  • If you’re using the Tabs dialog, select radio button 2 under “Leader” before closing the dialog.

  • If you’ve used the ruler to set your tab stop, you’ll need to go to the Tabs dialog (see above for approved methods), select the appropriate tab stop (if there’s more than one) in the “Tab stop position” list, and select 2 under “Leader,” then click OK.

Tabs dialog showing leader buttons

Figure 9. Tabs dialog showing leader buttons

  1. Press Tab in your document between the text you want on the left side of the page and the numbers (or text) you want on the right side.

A price list with prices right-aligned

Figure 10. A price list with prices right-aligned

Decimal tabs

A right-aligned tab stop works well when your numbers all have the same number of decimal places (or none) and when numbers are the only text to be aligned. But what if you have a combination of assorted numbers with different numbers of decimal places, negative numbers enclosed in parentheses, numbers followed by an asterisk or other reference mark, percent sign, or the like? For this you need a decimal tab stop.

You can insert a decimal tab stop the same way you did the right-aligned tab, either in the Tabs dialog (selecting “Decimal” as the Alignment) or on the ruler (one more click on the button will give you the upside-down T with a dot that indicates a decimal tab stop). The secret of a decimal tab stop is that it aligns numbers on the decimal point—even when there isn’t one there! In effect, it aligns numbers on the first non-numeric character (other than the thousands separator) following the numbers, whether this is a period, a parenthesis, an asterisk, or alphabetic text. See Figure 11.

Examples of use of decimal tab stop

Figure 11. Examples of use of decimal tab stop

Important Note: Decimal tab stops are especially useful in tables because, when you set a decimal tab stop in a cell or column, left-aligned text in that cell or column is automatically aligned at the tab stop position: you don’t have to enter a tab character (Ctrl+Tab in a table).

This article copyright © 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2023 by Suzanne S. Barnhill.