Using tab stops

If you are using Word and leveraging its features effectively, there are only a few very limited scenarios in which tab stops are necessary: decimal tabs and leader tabs, and bar tabs.

Decimal tabs are used to align numbers, as in the example below.

decimal tabs example

Note that each number aligns on its decimal point, regardless of how many digits are to the right or left of the decimal point. If a number doesn't include a decimal point, it is treated as if it does.

Leader tabs are used to align text with a character leading up to it.

leader tabs example

The example above shows a right-aligned, dot leader tab. The leader is typically made up of dots, but can also be underscores or hyphens.

Do not create a table of contents using leader tabs. Remember that Word can automatically generate a table of contents using the Insert → Reference ? Index and Tables command.

Bar tabs drop a vertical bar at a specific position. They are not traditional tab stops and are used in exceedingly rare situations.

To set tabs using the Tabs command:

  1. Choose Format ? Tabs.

    The Tabs dialog box appears.

    Tabs dialog box

  2. You will often want to click Clear All to clear any existing tab stops in a paragraph, prior to configuring new tab stops.
  3. In the Tab stop position box, enter a measurement for the tab stop (relative to the page margin).
  4. Optionally, select an Alignment option and/or Leader.
  5. Click Set.
  6. Repeat steps 3-4 to create additional tab stops.
  7. When done, press ENTER or click OK.
Tabs are considered a paragraph format. When you create or modify tab stops, the changes will affect the selected paragraphs by changing the formatting in their paragraph marker. Tab stops can also be configured as part of a paragraph style.

Once you have created tab stops, you insert a tab by doing one of the following:

  • In the body of a document, press Tab.
  • In a table, press Ctrl+Tab. Ctrl+Tab necessary to insert a tab character in tables and in other situations where the Tab key is used for cursor movement, is a shortcut or has some other meaning.


You can also use ruler shortcuts to manage tab stops:

  • Select a tab stop type from the Tab Selector to the left of the ruler then click the ruler to set that type of tab stop in that position.
    • Left alignment tab selector - left alignment
    • Right alignment tab selector - right alignment
    • Center alignment tab selector - center
    • Decimal tab tab selector - decimal
    • Bar tab tab selector - bar
  • Drag a tab stop to move it.
  • Drag a tab stop off the ruler to clear it.
  • Double-click a tab stop as a shortcut to the Tabs command.
You cannot set leaders using ruler shortcuts, so it is best to create tabs using the Tabs command, then you can use the ruler shortcuts to modify tab positions.

In every situation other than aligning numbers (decimal tabs) and using leaders (leader tab), you will be better served by using tables to align text. Even in these two scenarios, you should consider more powerful and contemporary alternatives. If you are dealing with numbers, you may be better served by embedding an Excel worksheet. If you are trying to help the reader follow a line using a leader tab, you might consider using a table with shaded rows.

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