When you press the Tab key while working in Microsoft Word, your cursor moves to a specific location called a tab stop. Tabs can be used to indent paragraphs, but they can also be used for other purposes including creating single- and multi-column lists. This tutorial shows (1) how to change Word’s default tab and (2) how to create, change, and delete tabs in Word on the ruler.
Important Note: Although tabs can be used to indent paragraphs, Word’s built-in indent options are more efficient and reliable for longer documents. See “Three Ways to Indent Paragraphs in Microsoft Word” for more information.
Before starting the tutorial, let’s look at the different types of tab stops you can use in Word.
Five Types of Tab Stops in Word
Word includes five different tab stops:
- The left tab places left-aligned text to the right of the tab stop. (This is the most common tab stop.)
- The center tab centers text on the tab stop.
- The right tab places right-aligned text to the left of the tab stop.
- The decimal tab aligns text based on the first decimal placed on the tab stop.
- The bar tab creates a vertical line at the tab stop. (Technically, this is not a tab; it is for formatting multi-column lists.)
This tutorial is available as a YouTube video showing all the steps in real time.
Watch more than 150 other writing-related software tutorials on my YouTube channel.
The images below are from Word for Microsoft 365. The steps also apply to Word 2021, Word 2019, Word 2016, Word 2013, and Word 2010.
How to Change Word’s Default Tab
By default, Word moves your cursor half an inch to the right when you press the Tab key on your keyboard. However, you can change the length of your default left tab stop without creating a new tab.
The following steps only affect your current document. If you want to change the default tab for all future documents, you have to modify your normal.dotm template. We will cover that advanced topic in a separate tutorial.
- Select the Home tab in the ribbon.
- Select the dialog box launcher in the Paragraph group.
- Select the Tabs button in the Paragraph dialog box.
- Use the increment arrows to adjust the default tab stop in the Tabs dialog box. Alternatively, you can type a new number directly into the text box.
- Select the OK button to close the Tabs dialog box.
How to Create, Change, and Delete Tabs on Word’s Ruler
The steps below use the ruler. You can also create and adjust tabs using the Tabs dialog box. However, that process is less user-friendly than the ruler method, so it will be presented in a separate, advanced tutorial.
How to Create Tabs on the Ruler
Skip to step 3 if your ruler is already visible.
- Select the View tab in the ribbon.
- Select Ruler in the Show group.
- Press Ctrl + A on your keyboard to select your entire document or select the portion of your document to which you want to apply the tab.
If you don’t select all or part of your document before creating your new tab, it will only apply to the paragraph your cursor is currently in or newly created content.
- Click the tab selector button until it changes to the symbol representing the tab you want. (Hover your pointer over each symbol in the tab selector for a tooltip explaining each symbol.)
- Click the location on the ruler where you would like to place the tab stop. The tab symbol will then appear on the ruler.
Note that you can place multiple tab stops on the ruler. Each time you press the Tab key, your cursor will move to the next stop.
How to Change Tabs on the Ruler
- [Optional step] If you want to change the location of a tab stop and update all the text formatted with that tab, select only that text.
- Slide the cursor symbol to a new location on the ruler. If your cursor is currently in a paragraph formatted with that tab, it will automatically update.
How to Delete Tabs on the Ruler
- Ensure that no text or other content is selected.
- Pull the tab symbol downward and release it. It will be removed from the ruler.
Pro Tip: If you accidentally delete a tab, immediately press Ctrl + Z on your keyboard to undo the deletion.
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Updated April 13, 2022