Tab tactics: Lining up numbers with dollar signs

What's one thing that new and experienced Word users have in common? They hate tabs! Here's a simple, practical scenario that proves tabs aren't so bad after all.

Ask a classroom full of inexperienced Word students to set up a price list in a document, and what will happen? Odds are, they'll type each item, add some spaces to try to line things up, type a dollar sign, maybe type a few more spaces, and then type the price. In fact, even experienced users often take this approach. But trying to use spaces to simulate alignment is frustrating, labor-intensive, and sometimes futile.

The key to painless alignment is tabs—and tabs are not that tough to grasp. Yet a surprising number of Word users dodge tabs as though they were some tedious, intimidating, high-end feature. So once you introduce some tab basics, this price list scenario may help demonstrate a real-world (or real-job) chore that will help make tabs seem relevant and approachable.

This list won't fly…
Start by setting up a standard seat-of-your-pants price list, heavily using the spacebar to try to achieve alignment. (You might even select the list and change some formatting to show how fickle spaces can be.) Figure A shows a best-try list using this technique.

Figure A
Trying to line up items, dollar signs, and prices can be a formidable task if you rely on the spacebar.

…But this one will
Now, let's use tabs to clean up the list.
  1. Delete any spaces that separate each item from its dollar sign or each dollar sign from its price. (If you don’t see dots representing spaces, click the Show/Hide button to display them. Then, just select them and press [Delete].)
  2. Position the insertion point after each list item and press [Tab] to insert a tab mark.
  3. Select all the items and set a left tab for them by clicking the desired spot on the ruler. We clicked on the 1 3/4 inch position in Figure B.

Figure B
We set a left-aligned tab to line up the dollar signs.

That takes care of lining up the dollar signs. Now, you can decimal-align the numbers.
  1. Click after each dollar sign and press [Tab] to insert a tab mark between the sign and the numbers.
  2. Select all the list items.
  3. Click the tab icon at the left end of the ruler until you see the decimal tab icon (the one with the period).
  4. Click on the ruler wherever you want to set the tab. In our case, the 2 1/4-inch mark worked well. Figure C shows the results.

Figure C
The decimal tab aligns the numbers following the dollar signs.

After you set up the list, you can show your students how they can easily adjust the tab positions to change the amount of space between the items, the dollar signs, and the prices. Just select the entire list, then drag the appropriate tab marker on the ruler to increase or reduce spacing.
How deeply does your training delve into Word's tab feature? Do you have any favorite tricks or examples you like to introduce to your students? Send us a note to tell us your tab secrets or share your tips with the rest of the training community by posing a comment below.


Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.


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