Using Rulers

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Ruler of all you survey: How to make the best use of Word’s rulers


The way in which most users set a hanging indent is as follows. They type until they get to the beginning of the second line of the paragraph, and they press Tab. Then they type to the beginning of the next line and press Tab. And so they continue. They end up with paragraphs which (with non-printing characters displayed) look something like this:

Figure 1. How not to set a hanging indent!
This document will be a maintenance nightmare.

Later, if they need to add or delete a word somewhere, or paste it into another document with different margins, the text will go all over the place, and some poor soul will have to spend a great deal of time reformatting the document.

To avoid spaghetti indents, set indents using the ruler:

Figure 2. These indents have been set properly, using the ruler.
The text can be modified or pasted into any other document without any
reformatting being required. This document will be easy to maintain.

If you work for a company of any size at all, then simply getting your staff to use the ruler properly will save them many hours every week, and significantly increase your company's profitability.

What rulers? Where?

Although Word’s rulers, both horizontal and vertical, are displayed by default, you or the person who set up or previously used your computer may have hidden them to maximize usable screen area. If you don’t see anything at the top or side of your screen that looks like a ruler, here’s what to do:

Word 2003 and earlier

  1. On the View menu, select Ruler. This setting toggles the ruler’s display. The result will be to display the horizontal ruler in all views and the vertical ruler subject to the conditions described in step 2.

  2. If you’re in Normal or Web Layout view, you will never see the vertical ruler, but if you are in Page Layout (Print Layout) view and still don’t see it, go to the View tab of Tools | Options and check the check box for “Vertical ruler” (at the bottom under “Window”). Note that selecting this option doesn’t force display of the vertical ruler; it just adds it to the rulers that are toggled on and off with the View | Ruler menu item.

Want the best of both worlds? Want to see the ruler only when you need to use it? Toggle the ruler display off on the View menu, and check the box for “Provide feedback with animation” on the General tab of Tools | Options. You will then see just the edge of one or both rulers. When you carefully mouse over this edge, the ruler will slide into view. 

Word 2007 and above

  1. On the View tab of the Ribbon, in the Show group, check the box for Ruler. This setting toggles the ruler’s display. The result will be to display the horizontal ruler in all views and the vertical ruler subject to the conditions described in step 2.

  2. If you’re in Draft or Web Layout view, you will never see the vertical ruler, but if you are in Print Layout view and still don’t see it, go to Word’s Options as follows:

  • Word 2007: Click the Office Button, then Word Options. Select the Advanced tab.

  • Word 2010 and above: Click File, then Options. Select the Advanced tab.

Under Display, check the check box for “Show vertical ruler in Print Layout view.” Note that selecting this option doesn’t force display of the vertical ruler; it just adds it to the rulers that are toggled on and off with the View | Show | Ruler check box.

Using the horizontal ruler

Using the horizontal ruler can save you a lot of trips to the Tabs, Paragraph, and Page Setup dialogs (or make it easier to get there). It is also useful when working in tables or columns.

Setting tabs

For a full explanation of how to set tabs using the ruler, see Setting tabs.

When you need to use the Tabs dialog to refine your tab formatting by adding tab leaders or fine-tuning the location of tab stops, you can access this dialog from the ruler. With the mouse pointer on a tab marker or the ruler itself, right-double-click with your mouse; or left double-click on the grey portion at the bottom of the ruler. The chief drawback to this method is that it results in setting a tab stop if you have clicked where there was not already a tab marker.

Setting paragraph margins and indents

If you mouse over the triangular sliders at either end of the ruler, you will see (provided you have ScreenTips enabled) that they are identified as Right Indent, Hanging Indent, and First Line Indent. The rectangular slider is Left Indent. A little experimentation in a previously entered text paragraph will quickly reveal what they do.

You’ll see that the Hanging Indent drags the Left Indent Marker with it, but if you carefully grab just the Left Indent alone, it will drag both the Hanging Indent and the First Line Indent markers, resulting in indenting the entire left margin.

Despite the name, you can also use these sliders to “outdent” or negatively indent a paragraph. You will probably have figured out that the white area in the center represents the text area of the page and the darker portion on the right (and left if you’re in Page Layout/Print Layout view) represents the page margins. If you drag a marker into the grey area, the paragraph will extend into the left or right margin.

It might appear that the left margin markers cannot be dragged to the left in Normal/Draft view, but in fact trial and error will show that they can. If you want to be able to see this portion of the ruler before you start dragging, press the Shift key while you click on the left arrow on the horizontal scroll bar.

Note: If you do not see the horizontal scroll bar at the bottom of your screen above the status bar, you need to check the appropriate box on the View tab of Tools | Options (Word 2003 or earlier) or in the Display section on the Advanced tab of the Word Options (Word 2007 and above).

By default, ruler sliders snap to “detents” or “click-stops” at intervals (the interval is ⅛″ or .17″ if you have selected inches as your unit of measurement). But you can override this behavior by pressing Alt while dragging. Not only does this allow the sliders to move freely, but the relative measurements are displayed as you drag (as illustrated below).

Setting page margins

The horizontal ruler can also be used to set left and right page margins, but only in Page Layout (Print Layout) view. If you hover your mouse just above the Left Indent or Right Indent marker, you will see that the pointer changes to a double-headed horizontal arrow, and the ScreenTip says “Left Margin” or “Right Margin.”

Dragging will then change the corresponding margin. Once again, pressing Alt will allow you to see the relative measurements as you drag.

You should note an important difference between this action and the action of setting tabs or paragraph margins or indents using the ruler. When you change paragraph formatting or set tabs without text selected, your actions apply to the paragraph in which the insertion point is located. If you have multiple paragraphs selected, the formatting is applied to all the selected text. Because page margins are a section property, however, when you change margins, whether or not you have text selected, the margins will be changed for the entire document (or the current section if there is more than one). This may surprise former WordPerfect users, who have been accustomed to being able to change page margins for selected text (Word accomplishes the same thing by changing the paragraph margins).


Using the vertical ruler

In the same way, you can change top and bottom margins using the vertical ruler. When you are in the header or footer pane, you can also change the header or footer margin (as well as the top or bottom margin, respectively).

If you prefer to set margins in the Page Setup dialog, or if you have other settings to make in that dialog, you can easily access it by double-clicking on one of the grey borders of either the horizontal or the vertical ruler (be careful to avoid the white area in the center; although double-clicking the centre of the white bit also brings up the Page Setup dialog, clicking nearer the bottom of the white area will set a tab stop).

Sizing objects using the rulers

When your insertion point is in a text box or frame, you will see that the display on both horizontal and vertical rulers changes to reflect the size of the selected object.

You can size the object by dragging in the ruler in the same way that you drag to change page margins. When your pointer shows the ScreenTip “Adjust Left” or “Adjust Right,” “Adjust Top” or “Adjust Bottom,” you can drag to change the size. You may wonder why in the world you would want to do this when it’s just as easy to drag the borders of the object itself. The difference is that if you press Alt before dragging, you can see the resulting size of the object. Better still, if you just position the mouse over the “Adjust Right” or “Adjust Top” marker and then press Alt and press and hold the left mouse button without dragging, you can see the current size of the object without a trip to the Format | Object dialog. (This applies to earlier versions of Word; in Word 2007 and above, the contextual Drawing Tools | Format and Text Box Tools | Format tabs provide the height and width measurements of selected graphics.)

Using the rulers to format tables and columns

In the same way, you can resize newspaper-style columns and table rows and columns using the rulers. Although it is generally easier to drag row and column borders within a table (especially given the risk of dragging paragraph margins instead of column margins on the ruler), there is no other way to size newspaper-style columns outside the Columns dialog. And here, too, you can press Alt and press and hold the left mouse button to get a display of the current dimensions of rows and columns.

For newspaper-style columns, what you can do with the ruler depends on whether or not you have checked “Equal column width” in the Columns dialog; if this option is not checked, you can adjust the width of each column and the distance between columns independently; if it is checked, then dragging one marker drags all equally. (For more on working with columns, see The strait and narrow: using columns.)

Using the horizontal ruler as a diagnostic tool

If you choose not to display the horizontal ruler, you are missing out on one of the most informative features of the Word workspace. Because it displays paragraph indents and tabs, it can be very helpful in troubleshooting problems with paragraph formatting. And if you’ve ever had text disappear entirely from a table cell because of a negative right paragraph indent combined with right-aligned text, you’ll know how helpful the ruler can be in troubleshooting table formatting. Naturally there will be times when you want to eliminate clutter (though really this is what Print Preview is for), but as a general rule, you would be well advised to keep the rulers visible.

This article copyright © 2000, 2016 by Suzanne S. Barnhill. Portions of this article (including the Overview and 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).