AutoFormat and AutoCorrect

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Word is always making changes I don't expect. How can I get more control over my formatting?

Many of Word’s unexpected changes result from the AutoFormat As You Type and AutoCorrect functions. AutoCorrect and AutoFormat can be tremendously helpful features, but when you don’t understand what they’re doing, they can cause many mysteries. The first thing to know is that whenever something happens in Word that you don’t understand, you can Undo it with the Undo button or by pressing Ctrl+Z. This is very useful for isolated instances where you don’t want Word to do something that ordinarily you’d be happy to have it do; for example, maybe you love “smart quotes” (the “curly” ones), but you want “straight quotes” when you’re writing about feet and inches: just use Ctrl+Z, which will reverse the AutoFormat but not the character insertion.[1]

AutoFormat As You Type

To change the AutoFormat As You Type settings to apply to everything you type, you will need to open the AutoFormat As You Type dialog, as follows:

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: On the Tools menu, select AutoCorrect Options. In the ensuing dialog, select the AutoFormat As You Type tab (note that there is also an AutoFormat tab, which has a different purpose).

  •  Word 2007: Click the Office Button (the multicolored round one in the top left corner) and click Word Options… in the bottom right corner of the menu that opens. In the Word Options dialog, select the Proofing tab and click the AutoCorrect Options… button. In the ensuing dialog, select the AutoFormat As You Type tab (note that there is also an AutoFormat tab, which has a different purpose).

  •  Word 2010 and above: Click the File tab and then Options toward the bottom of the left pane. In the Word Options dialog, select the Proofing tab and click the AutoCorrect Options… button. In the ensuing dialog, select the AutoFormat As You Type tab (note that there is also an AutoFormat tab, which has a different purpose).

In any version, you will get a dialog that looks more or less like this.

The AutoFormat As You Type tab of the AutoCorrect Options dialog in Word 2010

The AutoFormat As You Type feature that seems to cause the most trouble is Borders (see the relevant section of “Troublesome Lines”), but “Automatic bulleted lists” and “Automatic numbered lists” are a close second. If you find that Word is automatically applying a bulleted or numbered style when you manually type a bullet (such as an asterisk) or a number, this is the setting that is responsible. You may find that helpful, but, if you don’t, this is where to turn it off.

Perhaps the most insidious setting, however, and the most damaging in the long run, is “Define styles based on your formatting.” This was probably somebody's idea of a way to get more users to use styles other than Normal, and I have no quarrel with their motivation: styles are the single most powerful and useful feature in Word, and anything that encourages more users to discover them is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, far from encouraging users to use styles properly, it simply applies styles (almost always inappropriately) without most users’ understanding what is going on—and as a result their documents rapidly begin to resemble a teenager’s bedroom.

What this option really means is “Apply styles that resemble your formatting.” So if you have a one-line paragraph which you have, for perfectly good reasons of your own, formatted as bold, perhaps in a larger point size than your text paragraphs, Word will decide that you meant to make it a heading and will apply one of its built-in heading styles (even though that style may not be what you intended at all). This is the most frequent single reason for people’s tables of contents, Document Map, or Navigation pane not working properly. So this check box is a good one to clear!

In fact, it is a good idea to turn off most of the options on the AutoFormat As You Type tab of AutoCorrect Options. In particular, it is best to turn off all the options under “Apply as you type” and “Automatically as you type”; the “Replace as you type” options are generally benign, but you will want to pick and choose these as well.

AutoCorrect

Users can also be annoyed by the AutoCorrect features dealing with capitalization. You will find these on the AutoCorrect tab of the same dialog in which you found the AutoFormat As You Type options. Most of the time you will want to leave all the options enabled, but occasionally, when you are dealing with text in which paragraphs start with a lowercase letter (such as a word list, glossary, or dictionary), you will need to temporarily disable “Capitalize first letter of sentences.” Note that you can also disable capitalization in table cells without affecting ordinary paragraph text.

The AutoCorrect tab of the AutoCorrect Options dialog in Word 2010

Sometimes you’ll find that, even with all the boxes checked, Word is not capitalizing words as expected. In that case the problem is usually that an exception has been defined. If you click the Exceptions…, you’ll likely find the answer on one of the tabs of this dialog.

AutoCorrect Exceptions dialog in Word 2010

You probably didn’t mean to create this exception; the explanation is in the “Automatically add words to list” check box, which is checked by default. Clear that check box and then search for all the exceptions you didn’t intend to add and remove them.

Another reason for failure to capitalize is that you have started a sentence after a number. In earlier versions of Word, this did work, but apparently a large body of users objected to having entries in numbered lists automatically capitalized. The (presumably unintended) result of “solving” this problem is that capitalization after numbers is also suppressed in normal paragraph text. So if your previous sentence ended in a number, the first letter of your new sentence will not be AutoCorrected.

AutoFormat

Earlier I pointed out the difference between AutoFormat As You Type and AutoFormat. The AutoFormat tab of the AutoCorrect Options dialog contains some of the same settings as AutoFormat As You Type, as shown below.

The AutoFormat tab of the AutoCorrect Options dialog in Word 2010

The difference is that these options are applied not “as you type” but only when you choose to run the AutoFormat Now command. In Word 2003 and earlier, this command is available through the UI (Format | AutoFormat… | AutoFormat Now):

The AutoFormat dialog in Word 2003

In Word 2007 and above, however, it is necessary to add the button to the Quick Access Toolbar. This command can be an amazing timesaver. For example, if you have a series of text paragraphs separated by empty paragraphs, you can select them, run AutoFormat Now, and lose the empty paragraphs. Its primary use, however, is to make the same kinds of changes as those made by AutoFormat As You Type but on text that has already been typed. So if you have text with straight quotation marks, hyphens instead of dashes, and the like, AutoFormat will correct them. You can check and clear check boxes selectively to achieve specific effects; for example, if all you want to do is activate URLs or email addresses in a body of text, you can check just the box for “Internet and network paths with hyperlinks” and then apply AutoFormat.

Other Options

It's a good idea to look at all the tabs of the AutoCorrect Options dialog to familiarize yourself with what these options are and choose the ones you actually want. In Word 2003 and 2007, there is a tab for Smart Tags, and many users prefer to disable all of those. In Word 2010 and above, this is where the Math AutoCorrect entries can be found.

[1] Instead of using “straight quotes” to indicate feet and inches, I prefer to use Unicode characters 2032 (prime) and 2033 (double prime), which are correctly angled and are not autocorrected to “curly” quotes. Since I use these frequently, I have assigned the keyboard shortcuts Ctrl+Shift+F and Ctrl+Shift+I.

This article copyright © 2000, 2008, 2015 by Suzanne S. Barnhill.