Setting Tabs

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Most Word users who are old enough to have used a typewriter will have had some experience in setting tab stops in order to position text to line up accurately without having to use multiple spaces. In Word (or any other word processor), this becomes even more vital because in most cases you will be using proportional fonts. Most typewriters produce text in which every character (including the space) is the same width; the equivalent in word processing terms is a monospaced font, such as Courier New. Although it is possible, using a monospaced font, to line up text using spaces alone, tabs are much more efficient. Tabs are also the only way to accurately line up text in a proportional font because the characters have varying widths.

Why set them?

By default, a Word document has built-in tab stops at half-inch intervals. You can change the default spacing in a given document using the spin box in the top right corner of the Format | Tabs dialog, but in general it is preferable to avoid using the built-in tab stops at all.

Have you ever tried pasting from someone else’s documents into your own, or even just changing the page margins, or the font, and found that their tabbed lists no longer line up—so you have to waste a lot of time reformatting them? If so, it’s because the person who created the document didn’t use tabs properly.

If you use the built-in tabs, (and even, as many people do, use the space bar to simulate right-aligned tabs), and therefore end up tabbing once on some lines, more on others, depending on how much text you're typing on a given line, then the tab positions will be determined by the document's margins and by the font in use.

The golden rules when it comes to using tabs are: do set the tab positions yourself, and don’t press the tab key more than once between any two blocks of text: set a tab position instead. You can easily see whether a tabbed list has been created properly by clicking the Show/Hide ¶ button , so you can see where the tabs are.

Figure 1. How not to use tabs
Multiple tabs between the text blocks, spaces used to simulate right-aligned tabs—this list will go all over the place if the page margins or font are ever changed, or if the list is ever pasted into another document.

Figure 2. These tabs have been set properly
A left indent and a decimal tab stop have been set on the ruler, and there are no redundant tabs or spaces in the document—this list will be very easy to maintain.

Types of tabs

The Tabs dialog lists five kinds of tab stops, as follows:

  •  Left. This is the type you are probably most familiar with, the one you get by default when you press the Tab key. Text is left-aligned at the tab stop position.

  •  Center. When you tab to a Center tab stop, the text you type is centered at the tab stop position.

  •  Right. Text is right-aligned at the tab stop position.

  •  Decimal. This is a variant of the right-aligned tab stop. Text is aligned on the first non-numeric character (apart from the thousands separator) following a series of numbers. This type of tab stop is commonly used to align numbers with varying numbers of decimal places, but a decimal point is not required since the text is aligned where the decimal point would be if there were one. This makes it possible to align a mixture of negative numbers in parentheses and positive numbers without parentheses, numbers followed by footnote references (letters or symbols), or any other type of number followed by a non-numeric character. For more on this, see “Keeping numbers in line” (the article is for Word 2007 and above; for Word 2003 and earlier, see this article).

  •  Bar. Bar tabs, which aren’t really tabs at all but have been included in this dialog because some Microsoft designer found it convenient, are an almost totally undocumented feature in Word. They can be very useful occasionally, but only you will be able to figure out when they might be useful for you. When you set a bar tab, you get a thin vertical line at the tab stop position in each line of a paragraph. You don’t actually have to tab to it; it’s there all the time, and it extends to the full height of the text line, making a solid line throughout the paragraph. It doesn’t take the place of a paragraph border or cell borders in a table (although its original purpose was to simulate cell borders in tables), but every now and then it’s just what you want.

How to set tabs

Like many tasks in Word, setting tabs can be done in more than one way. Which one you use will mostly depend on which is most intuitive for you.

The Tabs dialog is the ultimate way to set tabs. Here you can type in an exact figure (down to hundredths of an inch), choose the kind of tab you want, and set a tab leader if desired. It is the only way to set a tab leader, which is typically a dotted line (period leader) filling the space taken up by the tab, used most commonly in tables of contents, but there are four different choices of tab leader available. It is also the only way to set a bar tab in Word 97 and earlier versions.

There are several ways to access the Tabs dialog in Word:

  •  Any version: Double-click on any tab stop on the horizontal ruler. You can also double-click on the ruler itself, but this will result in setting a tab stop where you click.

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: On the Format menu, choose Tabs…

  •  Word 2007 and above: Open the Paragraph dialog by clicking the dialog launcher in the bottom right corner of the Paragraph group on the Home or Page Layout tab or by right-clicking in a paragraph and choosing Paragraph… from the shortcut menu. In the Paragraph dialog, click the button for Tabs…

Important Note for Word 2007: There is a “gotcha” in the original release of Word 2007:  if you access the Tabs dialog through the Paragraph dialog, the settings you choose (even though they may be intended for a single paragraph) will be set as the document defaults and will be applied to the Normal template (Normal.dotm). This egregious bug was corrected by Service Pack 1, so if you have applied SP1, this will not be a problem.

Unless you want to set a tab leader, however, it is rarely necessary to visit the Tabs dialog. Usually the easiest way to set tabs is using the ruler bar. If you do not have the ruler displayed, display it as follows:

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: Click Ruler on the View menu.

  •  Word 2007: Check the box for Ruler in the Show/Hide group on the View tab.

  •  Word 2010 and above: Check the box for Ruler in the Show group on the View tab.

On the left side of the ruler is a button with an icon that looks like an L. This button shows which kind of tab stop is currently selected; the default is a left tab. Click anywhere on the ruler, and you will have set a tab stop; you will see a small L on the ruler. By default, the tab stop will be set at one of the ruler markings or halfway between them. If your ruler display shows inches, this means that tabs can be set only at intervals of 1/16″ (which is usually close enough) unless you press the Alt key while dragging the tab marker; when you do this, you will see measurements displayed, and you can set tab stops just as precisely as in the Tabs dialog.

Important Note: The built-in tab stops (at half-inch intervals by default) are not shown on the ruler in any way, so it may not be obvious to you that whenever you set a custom tab stop, all the built-in tab stops to the left of it are deleted, so that when you press Tab you go directly to the tab stop you set. The built-in stops to the right of your custom stop remain.

At least three other types of tab stops can be set using the ruler. If you click on the L button, it will change to the icons that represent center, right, and decimal tab stops. These are, respectively, an upside-down T, a backwards L, and an upside-down T with a dot (see Figure 2 for an example of a decimal tab stop). When you have reached the kind you need and click on the ruler bar, you will place that type of tab stop.

In Word 2002 and above, the bar tab has also been added to the rotation, along with buttons for first-line and hanging indents. (My personal feeling about the last two is that they are entirely superfluous—it is much easier just to drag the corresponding markers on the ruler—and rather tricky to use, not to mention that they result in requiring additional clicks on the button to get back to the left tab stop.)

You can move these tab stops as needed; just click on one of the markers and drag it where it is needed. This is very handy if you want to set up a simple table using tabs: you can enter data such as the following:

Item<tab>Item<tab>$Number
Another item<tab>A very long item<tab>number
And so on.

After you've finished the whole list and can see where the tab stops need to be, you can select the entire block and place the tab stops as needed.

Important Note: Like every other kind of paragraph-level formatting, tab stops in Word affect just the paragraph in which they are set (or selected text) and any other paragraphs that may later be created by pressing Enter. This means that you can set tab stops in a paragraph while you are writing it and keep those same settings for as long as you keep writing, until you change them in another paragraph, but, if you have already entered text and go back and set tab stops, they will affect only the paragraph where the insertion point is located or any block of text you have selected. This is really a very powerful tool, but it is not always intuitive for beginners.

One of the things I especially like about Word is that you can set tab stops beyond the right page or paragraph margin, which makes it very easy to do, say, invoices with a multi-line entry that wraps short of the right page margin (because the paragraph has a right indent), while the money amount is at a right tab stop at the right page margin (beyond the paragraph margin). This is also useful for long entries in tables of contents.

Important Note: In Word 2013 and above, tab stops cannot be set outside the page margins, and tab stops in the margins of existing documents are not honored. Tab stops can be set outside the paragraph indents, but only through the Tabs dialog; tab stops on the ruler cannot be dragged past the indent markers.

Tabs and tables

You might think that using tables would be a substitute for tabs, and to a large extent it is, but you can also set tab stops in tables; the trick is that you have to use Ctrl+Tab to get to the tab stop, because Tab alone takes you to the next table cell. Also, if you set a decimal tab in a table, the cell contents (which must be left-aligned), will jump to that tab automatically: you don't have to enter a tab character.

A borderless table has one other major advantage over a tabbed list—the text in it can word-wrap. You may very well start out using a tabbed list, then realize halfway through that you need the text to word-wrap. Provided you have used tabs properly, it is almost a one-step process to convert the tabbed list to a table:

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: Select the text to be converted. On the Table menu, select Convert | Text to Table, confirm the desired number of rows and columns in the ensuing dialog, press Enter, and you're done.

  •  Word 2007 and above: Select the text to be converted. On the Insert tab, in the Tables group, click Table and select Convert Text to Table. Confirm the desired number of rows and columns in the ensuing dialog, press Enter, and you're done.

But if you tabbed more than once between any two blocks of text, the resulting table will be a mess.

First-line indents

One more word of advice about tabs: If you are accustomed to indenting the first line of a paragraph using a tab, don't do it. The proper (and timesaving) way to do this in Word is to use a first-line indent. You can set this in the Paragraph dialog or by dragging the first-line indent marker on the ruler bar. This is the top triangle of the three buttons to the right of the tab selector button. If you hover your mouse over it, the ScreenTip will say “First Line Indent.” (The other two are for Left Indent—there's a corresponding Right Indent on the other side—and Hanging Indent.)

This article copyright © 2000, 2016 by Suzanne S. Barnhill. Portions of this article (including the introductory paragraph and the screen shots) were added by Word MVP Dave Rado when it was originally published on the Word MVP FAQ site (of which he was Webmaster).