#175 Word For Archaeologists Pt. 3.2: Fun with Tabs

Part one of this short series on the use of tabs in Microsoft Word dealt with a few common issues. Those include setting up tabs, types of tabs, and some cool little things you can do right in the ruler. Here are some more advanced techniques you can use with tabs. Please comment and enjoy.

Tab Leaders 

Tab leader types.

Tab leader types.

Ever wonder how people get those dots in their table of contents? You know the ones I mean. The series of “periods” that run from the chapter title to the page number. Those are called tab leaders and can be used any time you have a tab in the document.

Tab leaders don’t care what type of tab you use. The symbol you choose will flow left from the tab between your text at the tab and the text at the beginning of the line. To choose a tab leader either double click in the ruler bar on a tab or click on “tabs” in the Format menu. 

In the Tab dialogue box you’ll see a wealth of information. At the top you can change the default position of tabs. It’s usually set at 0.5 inches. That means when you hit the tab key, with no tabs set in the ruler bar, your curser will move 0.5 inches. Next you’ll see a list of the tabs you have in your ruler bar and the position on the ruler that they are set at. Notice that there is a box where you can enter a number. If you know where you want all your tabs and would like to do it manually, or you would like to adjust existing tab positions, you can do that here. Just enter a number and click “set”. The tab will appear in the list.

Tab Menu dialogue box

Tab Menu dialogue box

Now you can click on one of those numbers and change the attributes of the tab. Notice that you can change they tab type by clicking one of the radio buttons next to left, center, right, etc. Here, is where you set the tab leader. On my version of word there are four options: none, dots, dashes, and a solid line. Most people like the dots, although, the solid line is clean and classy. You should always try to stay classy. Anyway…

Finally, you can clear all the tabs in the document by clicking on “clear all”. Keep in mind that this will move text around in your document if you’ve used the tab key. Only use “clear all” if you know what you’re doing. You can always press CNTL-Z if you really mess things up.

Paragraph and line indents

These aren’t really tabs but they function the same way. The margins of your writing area are determined by the triangles on the left and right side of the ruler. There is only one triangle on the right side and moving it will change the length of your paragraphs. The left side is more complicated and is composed of three parts: an inverted triangle, a regular triangle, and a small rectangle.

The bottom rectangle’s only function is to move both triangles at the same time. This is for indenting lines and paragraphs. All lines in the selected area will be moved. Keep in mind I said “selected area”. Tabs and the ends of the ruler can be different for every single paragraph you have in your document. When you press the enter key the settings for the previous paragraph are copied to the next one. To change the entire document press CNTL-A and highlight everything. Only do this if you want to change EVERYTHING.

The top triangle is the first line indent. Every need to indent the first line of a paragraph? Ever need to outdent (pretty sure that’s a word) the first line? This is where you do it. Just drag the top triangle only in either direction and that is where the first line will start.

Indented text using just the triangles on the ruler bar.

Indented text using just the triangles on the ruler bar.

The bottom triangle is the hanging indent. The rest of the lines in a paragraph (after the first line) will be positioned according to the bottom triangle. Thankfully, once you have your top and bottom triangles set you can move the whole lot by dragging the rectangular box. That will come in handy later.

Moving Ordered and Numbered Lists

An ordered list is one with bullets (dots, squares, whatever) and a number list uses, uh, numbers (OK, letters, roman numerals, and whatever else you want too). Instead of fiddling with the ruler bar to indent or outdent a list item, just use the tab key. Pressing the tab key will move the list item forward one tab space. That distance is determined by the tab distance you have set in the tab menu. Pressing SHIFT-TAB will move the item backwards. If you’re using a numbered list the name of the list item will also change (a. to i. to 1. etc.).


Click here for the first part of the tab series. In this post we learned how to manually set tabs and tab leaders, how to change the indentation on paragraphs, including first line indents, and how to move ordered and numbered lists quickly and easily.

If I made any mistakes, left something out, or you’d like me to cover something else in a future post be sure to let me know in the comments. You can also let me know by using the contact form in the sidebar.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!