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Accurately Setting Tabs Using the Ruler

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: Accurately Setting Tabs Using the Ruler.

You probably know that Word allows you to set tabs in a paragraph by clicking on the Ruler at the top of the document window. The tab that is inserted depends on the tab type selected at the left side of the Ruler. You can then click on the tab and drag it to the location desired.

Sometimes, however, accurately placing the tabs using the Ruler and the mouse can be a pain. In fact, you may notice that the tabs seem to "jump" from one location to another as you are dragging them. If this is the case, and you long for a way to more accurately set the tabs using the mouse on the Ruler, there are a couple of things you can check out.

First, you should understand that the grid settings on the drawing layer can affect the dragging behavior for tabs. (Nobody seems to know why this is the case; it just is.) Word, by default, is configured so that "snap to grid" is turned on, and the grid is set for 1/16-inch increments. Thus, when you drag a tab stop, it seems to "jump" in increments of 1/16 inch. If you don't need the drawing grid, you can turn it off by following these steps:

  1. Make sure the Drawing toolbar is displayed. (Choose View | Toolbars | Drawing, or click on the Drawing tool on the Standard toolbar.) The toolbar should appear at the bottom of the Word window.
  2. On the Drawing toolbar, click on Draw, then choose Grid. Word displays the Drawing Grid dialog box. (See Figure 1.)
  3. Figure 1. The Drawing Grid dialog box.

  4. Clear the Snap Objects to Grid check box.
  5. Click on OK.

You should now be able to drag tabs along the Ruler smoothly and precisely. If you want to see the precise placement of the tabs, just hold down the Alt key as you drag them.

If you still have problems placing the tabs accurately, you might try increasing the zoom setting for viewing the document, and you should make sure that your mouse is clean. (If your mouse uses a mechanical ball for positioning, and there is lint or dirt in the ball housing, that can affect the ability of the mouse to move smoothly.)

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (38) 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: Accurately Setting Tabs Using the Ruler.

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Comments for this tip:

qingyue    14 Jan 2014, 02:57
It's useful for me. Thanks!
Jessica    06 Aug 2012, 11:19
The ALT key also works if you are trying to adjust vertical table cell borders that may have become misaligned (Zooming large also helps but I'm lazy so I avoid it unless desperate).

QUESTION: Is the Drawing Snap to Grid setting the reason that setting indents in the Styles/Outline Numbering box for turnover lines (second lines) is so very hard to do?
Mike    04 Aug 2012, 10:06
I'm glad you mentioned the fact that if you zoom in closer, you can get a more precise placement of the tab stops on the ruler, but I'm surprised that you didn't also mention that by holding the Alt key, you can altogether skip the part about changing the setting. When you hold the Alt key, it gives you the ability to freely move your tab stops to anywhere you want, so you can leave the setting as is and enjoy the best of both worlds (so to speak). Personally, I sometimes like to have them snap to the grid if I'm being lazy and trying to match more than one line.

Holding the Alt key is a good trick that also works for other tasks in Word that have a 'snap to grid' approach, i.e. adjusting column widths and moving drawing objects.
Fred Burg    04 Aug 2012, 09:28
Turning off the Snap in Word 2003 does NOT seem to help, even with the view zoomed to 200%. The tab still seems to jump in 1/16 inch increments as I drag. What I did find does help is to hold the ALT key down while dragging the tab; then I can not only view the position but I can position the tab as finely as desired.

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