Tutorial: How to create and correctly employ Word tabs

Learning how to use tabs correctly is the best way to ensure that columnar data stays where you put it.

The term tab, within the context of Microsoft Word's usage, can be a noun or a verb. A tab stop is a horizontal marker. To tab means to move the cursor to a tab stop by pressing the Tab key. Over time, we've dropped stop from the noun, but you might still see it referred to that way. Used properly, tabs are helpful. Used carelessly, tabs can totally wreck a document. Today, we'll discuss the proper way to set and employ tabs.

About tabs

You can add or delete tabs and you can manipulate the way text aligns to them. Word's default tabs are positioned every half-inch (or the equivalent of the unit of measurement you're using) or every five spaces.

Perhaps the easiest way to manipulate tabs is to use the horizontal ruler. If yours isn't visible, click the View tab and check Ruler in the Show group. In Word 2003, choose Ruler from the View menu. The tab selector is in the top-left corner of the document screen. Using this selector, you can add the following tab types:

  • Left: Left-aligns text to the tab.
  • Center: Centers the text around the tab.
  • Right: Right-aligns text to the tab.
  • Decimal: Aligns decimal numbers by the decimal point.
  • Bar: Draws a vertical line.
  • First Line Indent: Inserts an indent marker that indents only the first line in a paragraph.
  • Hanging Indent: Inserts an indent marker that indents all lines but the first line.

Technically, the bar tab on the first line and hanging indents aren't tabs, but you can use the tab selector to add them. We won't discuss them today.

The left tab is the default setting. Click the selector to cycle through the different settings in the above order. To insert a tab, use the selector to indicate the tab type and then click anywhere on the ruler. Word will add the tab to the current paragraph(s) and any new paragraphs. To delete a tab, simply drag it off the ruler.

In the images below, you can see the a simple list using all of the different tabs. Let's walk through the process of adding a decimal tab:

  1. Select the list.
  2. Click the tab selector until you've selected decimal.
  3. Click the horizontal ruler at 2 inches.
  4. Position the cursor in the first row, between the colon character and the dollar sign.
  5. Press tab.
  6. Repeat the process for all the lines in the list.

The right and decimal tabs have similar results, but only because all of the values have two decimal places. Sometimes it's easier to work with tabs if you can see them. To do so, click Show/Hide in the Paragraph group on the Home tab (or on Word 2003's Formatting toolbar). The right arrows are tab indicators.

Bad tab fixes

When you don't understand how to insert and use tabs, you can make bad decisions. The following fixes are a bad idea:

  • Don't use the first tab to indent a paragraph. Use the first line indent property for that.
  • Don't press tab more than once between two blocks of text. If an existing tab isn't wide enough, create a new tab that is.
  • Don't use spaces to separate columnar items.

Any of the above fixes might look fine initially, but if you change the text or font, your columns will no longer line up correctly. Create the right tabs and use them - it will save you from future problems.

Need more precision

Adding tabs via the ruler is easy, but it won't always be adequate. In this case, you might need the Tabs dialog. Using this dialog, you can quickly type in a tab position, choose a tab type, and even add leaders. Use one of the following methods to access this dialog:

  • Double-click any tab on the ruler.
  • In Word 2007/2010, click the Paragraph group's dialog launcher (on the Home tab). Then, click the Tabs button (bottom-left corner).
  • In Word 2003, choose Tabs from the Format menu.


Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.


... how many people didn't know about tabs, tables, and rudimentary formatting, until I started getting Word documents from people with whom I work. I always work with "Show markers" on, and I can't count the number of times I see "space-space-space-space-space" instead of a tab. Yes, it lines up fine in Times 12-point (or whatever), but if I then have to change font sizes or margins so that the client's finished document looks right, all that crap is revealed in all its glory! Same goes for decimal tabs for columns of figures. Basic lesson: Just because you can work a typewriter, doesn't mean you can work a word processor. Education is all!!


This is a VERY good explanation of a tricky topic. I teach college students about the ruler and aligning text with tabs but they can't really appreciate the value until they inherit someone's document with BAD tabs and too many spaces. Most people think that Word is just being "squirrel-ly" when actually the document wasn't set up properly. Even if you use tables (and remove the borders) for simple columnar list, you still need to know about the various tabs types and about the alignment features to use right tabs, and decimal tabs within each cell.


I didn't know any of this stuff. I'm an accountant and in the past I've gone half bonkers trying to line up numerical and financial values. Thank you Susan, you've posted some great blogs but this is the one I appreciate the most.


Nice advice Susan but I think you should have included setting dot leaders too and then added Don't use Full Stops to your list of bad tab fixes! Ginmemphis mentions hard copy forms but leaders are essential if creating simple online forms in Word.


Tabs are better than tables for decimal alignment. I also use tabs when creating hardcopy forms with underlined spaces to fill out; the spacing is easier to adjust for each line, and I can use leader tabs for the lines.


I was particularly glad to see you make mention of using fact you could have put that first! My executives drive me crazy with that. But having a conversation about tabs without including rudimentary coverage of indents probably didn't educate much. Especially as your guidance on your first rule indicates you should use the indent function.


I agree with EvilNSaint -- Tables are the way to go for columnar text. Just choose "None" for your borders and no one will likely ever know you are using a table. However, if I could, I would shout your Bad Tab Fixes from the rooftop. Word users should have to take an oath that they will never, ever, ever commit a Bad Tab Fix!


That's good to know, but I think making a table and fixing the alignment in it is better and faster solution for this kind of text.

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