Microsoft Word has the features you need to create professional looking documents. To get the most out of these features, it’s important to understand when and where to use them. In this post, we’ll discuss how to use tabs, tab stops, and paragraph alignment.

Displaying Formatting Symbols

When the formatting for a Word document doesn’t look quite right the first thing to do is display hidden formatting symbols (Home > Show/Hide ¶ bt ShowHide ). This allows space characters (a dot) and tab characters (an arrow) to be visible on the screen (these hidden symbols will not appear on a printout when displayed onscreen). For example, in the following document, notice the title isn’t quite centered and the table of phrases isn’t exactly aligning:

Tabs and Aligment blog 1

Let’s do some forensics and take a look at the same document with formatting symbols displayed:

Tabs and Aligment blog 2


The hidden symbols reveal that spaces are being used to simulate a centered title and a table. To format the document for the expected outcome, the spaces need to be removed so that tabs and tab stops can be used to align the table and a paragraph alignment used to center the title.

Centering a Title

To properly center a title, first remove any spaces used to pad it. In this case, delete all the spaces to the left of “It Was the Best of Times”. Next, place the insertion point in the title text. (Paragraph formats are applied to the entire paragraph, so there’s no need to select the entire title text.) With the insertion point in the title text, click Home > Center bt Center. Although there is no hidden symbol for indicating paragraph alignment, the text will be visibly centered between the left and right edge of the page:

Tabs and Aligment blog 3


Creating a Table

A table should always use tabs and tab stops to align contents (another option is a Word table, but that’s for a later post). The first step in this process is to insert tabs (by pressing the Tab key) to separate table contents into columns. The second step is to set tab stops to properly align the table columns. For our document, you must remove the spaces that are padding the contents before inserting a tab at the beginning of each phrase. Tabs automatically align text to default tab stops at every 1/2 inch:

Tabs and Aligment blog 4

Notice that although the Tab key was pressed at the beginning of each line, Word created a 1/2 indent for the first tab, which is not represented by a hidden symbol. Within the table, the tab character appears as an arrow.

The next step is to set tab stops, which will change where the tabs align. In this case, we want to add a little more space between the phrases so we will add stops at 2.75″ for each line of the table. We can do this by selecting all the table text together before adding the stop. With the text selected, click on the ruler (View > Ruler to display the ruler) at the position for a tab stop. A tab stop symbol is displayed and the selected text will automatically align to the new stop:

Tabs and Aligment blog 5

The tab stop symbol can be dragged on the ruler to reposition it or dragged off the ruler to remove it.

Our final document now has a centered title and properly formatted table (click Home > Show/Hide ¶ bt ShowHide  again to hide formatting symbols):

Tabs and Aligment blog 6

To learn more about paragraph formats refer to pages 23-24 in Microsoft Word 2016 In 90 Pages. Tabs and tab stops are discussed on pages 26-29. Belleyre Books also provides video tutorials for tabs, tab stops, and indents.

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