I’ve been working on a new document today and, as it’s got 1 or 2 checklists in the appendix, it’s time to avail myself of some more wonderful functionality that the world’s greatest word-processing package has; or, more specifically: ‘Microsoft Word Tabs: Always One Too Many‘.
I say this, because in most of the documents I receive, they’re usually all over the place (if they’re used at all, and if they’re not used, and you look at them, there’s always way too many!)
So, what do we mean by Microsoft Word tabs?Default tab gap
You see, if you’re in the text of your document (as I am now) and I press the tab key on my keyboard, I get this; if I press the tab key again (twice), I get this:Double tab - much larger gap
I don’t know whether you can see the difference between pressing the tab once, and the tab twice (I hope you can?).
But the gap is far larger. It’s not twice the distance of the gap when I pressed the tab key the first time.
To illustrate this, using the above examples, I turn on Show/Hide Characters (Ctrl+Shift+S on your keyboard). This what I see:
Viewing the tab marks
Those little arrows you see, are called tab marks.
The reason why they’re showing different distances is because of the default tab stop setting.
The what?

The Default Microsoft Word Tab Stop Setting

Now that’s a bit of a mouthful but yes, the default tab stop setting.
In the above images, my default tab stop setting is 1.27 cm.
How do I know?
If I click on the Paragraph Settings link:Paragraph Settings
The Paragraph dialog will display. Click on the Tabs button in the bottom left:Paragraph settings: tab button
You will see the Tab dialog:Default Tab Stop Setting
This is where you modify the default tab stops setting in Microsoft Word Tabs setting.
Once you’ve done this, click on Ok.
So, regardless of where the text on the line is, if I press the tab key, it will advance to the next default tab stop.
As we’ve shown, the single tab above only moves a short distance, whereas the double tab (and it’s purely by chance that the text finishes a bit further away on this tab stop) goes much further.
So, if I go to the default tab stop settings and change the default spacing to 2.54 cm, this is what my 2 sets of tab marks will look like (the top set being 1.27 cm, the bottom being 2.54 cm):
1.27 cm v 2.54 cm default tab settings
I edited that image for illustrative purposes as a default setting affects all the default tabs: both sets of tabs in the image above would reflect whatever default setting was set).
But, what’s the point of all this?

Precision Tabbing

Well, there are a number of reasons why you can’t use the default tab stop – the practical use of it is pretty minimal – and that’s why you often see this in documents:Microsoft Word Tabs: What not to do
Not only is it unprofessional and unsightly but, as you can see with that red line I’ve put in, it doesn’t necessarily align correctly.
The alternative for many is to add a space or two, as shown within the blue circle.
This isn’t good either.
In fact, it’s horrible.
So please don’t do it.

So What Can I Do About Microsoft Word Tabs Then?

Well, tabs are really easy.
Now that you know about them, they’re simple to set up, simple to tweak, and simple to get rid of.
But, if you’ll permit me to advise you on the best way to use them, I will.
Yes, I know that’s why you’re persevering with this post…
…but, in my own honest opinion…
…without a shadow of a doubt…
…the best way to use tabs is with…
…it’s with…

(Had to be really, didn’t it?)
Yes, once again, we’re back at my old favourite.
If you’re a glutton for punishment and have been following along from the beginning, you’ll know how much I hammer home styles…
… styles in Word are key…
…they’re essential to Word.
You cannot do anything without them.
So, learn them. Use them and, one day, I might eventually stop harping on about them.
(probably not, but here’s where it all began: click here to go to the Word Styles post on this site)

Microsoft Word Styles… Come on Russ, Give Over!

Sorry guys, once again, it is all down to style.
No, it’s not (well, it is)…
…but, the reason why we use styles (apart from Word liking it that way)
…is because we’re professionals, and we’re looking for the following:

  • Consistency
  • Precision
  • Predictable Word behaviour (now wouldn’t that be nice?)

…and, above all, an easy life!
As you can see in the table of contents image above, you are unlikely to get either of them with the default tab stop.
Microsoft Word’s default tab stop is too inconsistent…
…it’s imprecise; and, it can be unpredictable.
So, we use the tab stops to remove this irregularity in our work.
You see, if you set a tab stop:

  1. it overrides the default settings
  2. we know where the cursor is going to go
  3. we know what’s going to happen.

Just a reminder…

Why Do We Use Styles Again?

We use styles because they:

  • give us consistency
  • give us precision
  • are easy
  • give us enormous scope
  • look good
  • (make us look good)
  • Distinguish the pro from the amateur.

And because they make our life easier.
So, if we use tab stops with styles, we know exactly what’s going to happen when we press the tab key.
We know what’s going to happen…
…we know where our cursor is going to go.
…and we know our alignment will be perfect.

How Do We Set Them?

So, at the end of all that, with Microsoft Word Tabs, how do we set them with precision? Well, here’s a video I created earlier: