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Understanding Default Tab Stops

Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. If you are using a later version (Word 2007 or later), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for later versions of Word, click here: Understanding Default Tab Stops.

Word has many different levels of formatting that you can do in a document. Some formatting settings apply to characters, others to paragraphs, still others to sections, and finally there are formatting settings that apply to the entire document.

We normally think of tab stops as being a "paragraph-level setting." However, there is one tab stop option that applies to the entire document, not just to a particular paragraph. The way in which the setting is presented in Word is a bit deceiving, however.

The setting in mind, of course, is for the default tab stop distance. There is a single default tab stop distance that you can set in Word, although you do it from the Tabs dialog box, which is definitely a paragraph-level formatting dialog box. To see what this means, position your insertion point anywhere within your document; it doesn't matter where. Then choose Tabs from the Format menu. You will see the Tabs dialog box. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. The Tabs dialog box.

In the upper-right corner of the dialog box is the Default Tab Stops value. This value applies to the entire document, even though every other setting in the dialog box applies only to the current paragraph.

To test this out, change the Default Tab Stops value to something different from what it is, then click on OK. The dialog box closes, and the default is changed. Now, position the insertion point somewhere else in the document and again choose Tabs from the Format menu. The Default Tab Stops value should still be set to the new value you entered.

This means that to permanently change (so to speak) the default tab stop value, you need to do it within the templates you use to create new documents. For instance, you would follow these general steps to change the default tab stops in Normal.Dot:

  1. Load the Normal.Dot template.
  2. Choose Tabs from the Format menu. Word displays the Tabs dialog box.
  3. Change the Default Tab Stops value on the dialog box.
  4. Click on OK.
  5. Choose Save from the File menu, or click on the Save tool on the toolbar.

Once these steps are complete, then all new documents based on Normal.Dot will have the default tab stops set the way you want them. (Notice that this is for all new documents; existing documents will still have the old default tab setting. They will have to be changed individually.)

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (1187) applies to Microsoft Word 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. You can find a version of this tip for the ribbon interface of Word (Word 2007 and later) here: Understanding Default Tab Stops.

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