Mastering the Ruler in Word – Part 1


I’ve been teaching Microsoft Word for more than two decades and if you would ask me which feature users have the most trouble with, after thinking a few seconds I’d say: Tabulations. True, tabulations is a bit of a broad topic. It is used in bullet and number lists, hanging indents, outlining, tables and more. All these features have on thing in common: the Ruler!

Where is my ruler?

If you use Word 2016 you might (or maybe not) have notice that the ruler is not visible by default. Please, if the ruler is not visible on your screen, click the View tab then check the Ruler option.

Understanding the ruler

There is not a lot to understand about the ruler only that all its components are important depending on what you want to achieve. Once enabled, the ruler is visible below the Ribbon, but is also visible on the left of the screen. If the vertical ruler is not visible follow these steps: Click File > Options > Advanced scroll to the Display section and enable Show vertical ruler in Print Layout view.

Let’s discuss our first cool feature of the ruler.

Tip #1: Move your mouse anywhere in the Vertical Ruler and double-click on it to see the Page Setup dialog box.

Although this work on the horizontal ruler as well, it is mostly used for tabulation and indents. So I decided to stick with the vertical ruler.

Tip #2: Near the top of the ruler you can discern a grey area. Move your mouse on the boundary separating the grey and while area of the ruler. A screen tip displays Top Margin. Drag the mouse down to increase the top margin. Hold the Alt key while dragging to see the precise measurement of the margin. You can do the same with the bottom margin.

This feature also works with the horizontal ruler. Drag the left boundary across to increase the left margin of the document (or the current section). Same thing for the right boundary in the ruler.

Markers found on the ruler

Paragraph Margins

With the ruler you can change the left and right margins of a paragraph or a selection of paragraphs. Below you see the ruler and various markers used to control many paragraph formatting features.

The Left Indent marker allows you the change the left margin of the current paragraph. Similarly, the Right indent marker allows you to change the right margin of the current paragraph. Hold the Alt key while dragging these markers to set a precise measurement.

Paragraph indentations

On the ruler you will find indentation markers. On the left of the ruler you will find two markers forming a hourglass shape. The top marker will indent the first line of a paragraph only. The bottom marker will indent all lines except the first line.

The bottom marker allows to do what some call a Hanging Indent. However they are not really elegant. In this tutorial we will see how to create cool hanging indents.

Below the first paragraph has the first line indented. Position the insertion point before the first character of the paragraph and hit Tab as many time as desired.

Above, all lines are indented are indented except the first line. Position the insertion anywhere in the paragraph and hit Ctrl+T as many time as desired.

Tip #3: If you press any variations of the Tab key once to many, use Shift+Tab combination decrease the indentation. So Tab indents and Shift+Tab outdents!

What is the distance of a tab

When you hit the Tab key, Word indents 1.27 cm (or 1/2 inch) by default. In Word 2010, below the ruler, we could see small ticks every 1.27 cm. They indicated the default tab stop tick marks. In Word 2013-16 these ticks are not there anymore!

If you want to change the unit of measure on your ruler, click File > Options > Advanced. Scroll down to the Display section. Select another unit of measurement as shown above.

Cool Handing Indents

Just above we saw an example of a hanging indent. Although you may have used hanging indent that way, in my opinion, it does not look very elegant. Below are two examples of hanging indent. The two titles are sometimes referred to as Defined terms. Typically, the defined term is one or two words but it is not too long. The paragraph on the right is referred to as the Definition.

To create a hanging indent similar the the ones above follow these simple steps:

Tip #3: Type the defined term then hit Tab once. Finally press Ctrl+T until the paragraph left indent is at the desired distance. Typically, one or twice is sufficient. Remember if you press Ctrl+T once too many, hold Shift+Ctrl+T.

Resetting Paragraph Formatting

Tip #4: If you change your mind about any paragraph formatting you applies to a paragraph. You can quickly reset the paragraph to the original default by positioning the insertion point anywhere in the paragraph and hit Ctrl+Q. If the paragraph is a hanging indent, you should delete the defined term and the tabulation.

Automatic Alignment

In this section you are asked to move the mouse pointer across a blank area of a document and note various mouse shapes. Ensure that you move the mouse within the content area of the page, not within the margins as shown by the grey area on the right. If the mouse shapes do not appear as discussed below, click once anywhere in the document and proceed with the instructions.

Move your mouse pointer near the left edge of the content area, the pointer takes the shape of the 1st pointer below. As you move the pointer slightly toward the right it change to the 2nd pointer. Move a bit more to the right to see the 3rd pointer.

As you approach the center of the page, you notice the 4th mouse shape. Move in the second half of the content area to have the mouse take on the 5th shape. Finally near the far right of the content area, the mouse takes on the 6th shape.

A few of these mouse shapes has a really cool additional effect. Note that double-clicking the mouse configures the indentation of the paragraph you are about to type, not an existing paragraph.

Shape 1 – Will move the insertion point there. This is very useful when you add a bottom border and Word prevent me from moving the mouse pointer below the border. Simply double-click below the border.
You can also double-click a distance after a paragraph and Word will insert enough paragraph marks to reach that point.

Shape 2 – Will configure the new paragraph with the first line indent. As we’ve seen before, hitting Tab does the same thing. So no need to worry too much here.

Shape 3 & 5 – Will insert a Tab Stop at that location. This is not my favourite way of inserting a Tab Stop  in a line. Tab Stops are discussed shortly.

Shape 4 – This is like clicking the Center button which centers the paragraph.

Shape 6 – It can do two things. First, since it’s near the right side, the paragraph will be right align. Next, my favourite one, Flush Right allows the typist to align the insertion on the right margin at any position in the current line.

Flush Right

The expression Flush Right may take some reader way back to the days of WordPerfect. This was a really quick way to have, for example, a title on the left margin and a date flush on the right margin. See the example below. We can do that in Word but it’s just a tad more work

Let’s see how to quickly use Flush Right in a paragraph.

Tip #5: Type a few words in a new line. Double-click near the right end of the current line when the mouse has the shape 6 and Word add a Tab Stop on the right margin. Type a few more words.

What’s next?

In part 2 of this lengthy topic we delve into setting tab stops on the ruler to align columns and setup dot leader. Don’t miss the post: Mastering the Ruler in Word – Part 2



MS Office Trainer for 23 years. I am also an Access developer and I love teaching VBA in Excel.

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