The Secret of Tab Efficiency

Written and published May 3, 2000

Since I've written about spaces and paragraphs I figured I might as well complete the formatting trilogy with the last basic -- tabs. These poor guys are one of the most misunderstood and misused characters in the entire world of computer-based text formatting. Hopefully that lessens considerably today.

The question of the week is: Have you ever used tabs to line up your text and had it looking beautiful, then added or deleted a few words, or changed the font or text size -- and faced a complete mess of mis-aligned columns and zigzag columns as a result.

As you might expect, I have some exercises for you to follow along with again. Try these experiments in either Word or AppleWorks (or use your word processor of choice.)

As with the last two columns, it's much easier to see how tabs work when you can see the invisible tab characters onscreen. To learn how to show them, see the last column.

First, the Basics

Tabs, by default, are set at every half-inch. When you press the tab on your keyboard, the I-beam on the page jumps to the nearest half inch. Don't confuse that with thinking the tab actually moves your text a half inch, though.

To see for yourself:

  1. Start a blank page and press tab repeatedly; you'll see the cursor jump each half inch.
  2. Start a blank page; type "Mac," then put the I-beam in front of that text, press tab. This time the cursor (carrying the text) jumps not a half-inch, but to the nearest half-inch. Notice that the arrow depicting the tab is a different length in each line of the screen shot below.

In the screen shot above, you'll notice there are no tab marks on the ruler. That's because default tabs are often not shown on the ruler. (When you open a file from one word processor in another word processor though, you may see the tab marks each half-inch.)

Now the hot tip: You have full control over where any tab sends the text that follows it.

The Wrong Way to Use Tabs

First, the wrong way. You don't really have to do this part. Just read it to get the idea. Or, give it a go. With the formatting characters visible, start a new document, and then follow along.

  1. Type: "Date" then a tab, then "Items to Take" a tab, then "Priority."

    Notice that Date and Items are very close together. Do you want to add more space by adding another tab between them? OK. try it that way. (We're now heading down the wrong path.)
  1. Place your cursor between Date and Items and type another tab.

  2. Place your cursor at the end of the line and press Return to start a new line.

  3. Type: "July 3" then a tab, then another tab because you need to line up the next info. Then type, "Deb's birthday present."

    Oh no, that last text went into the next column heading. Gotta go back and add another tab in front of Priority. Good thing you don't have 30 lines to add that extra tab to. So ...

  4. Place your cursor between Take and Priority and type another tab.

  5. Place your cursor after Deb's birthday present again and now type two tabs and "Top."

    For the sake of speed, now assume you have completed your list -- a long list with many lines of info. And you can even assume that all the columns lined up correctly so you didn't have to go back and add more tabs between columns in all those many lines. (Not much chance of that but I'm being nice here.)

    But, oh no ... now someone takes a look and sees some errors. Ready for changes. Try a few of these and see if any of them mess up your nice columns.
  6. Try changing the font to Comic Sans, then making the text size 14. (Mine got messed up there.) If you tried this, you can undo it now.

  7. Try changing Date to Event Date. (Got another mess?) OK, undo that.

  8. Try changing July to January (Got another mess?) OK, undo that. (My birthday really is July. Just proving a point here.)

As you can now see, using multiple tabs is highly inefficient. Now lets look at the correct way to use tabs.

The Correct Way to Use Tabs

  1. Type: "Date" then a tab, then "Items to Take" a tab, then "Priority." (This is exactly like the way we started before.

    Notice that Date and Items are very close together. Let's account for this the right way. Consider where you'd like to start your next column. (Not that it matters as you'll now have flexibility.) Think about, say, the longest date you'd enter.

  2. Time to tell the tab where to go, so to speak. With your cursor in this first line (because it's the one you want to format), click in the ruler at the top of your text. That is, click the ruler at the point where you want the text immediately after the first tab marker to line up.

    Each program may be a bit different about where to click; you may need to click in the ruler, or perhaps just below it. You can experiment. In Word 98, you can click in the white of the ruler or in the gray immediately below it. Since you're not limited to half-inch increments, you have freedom to click anywhere. When you release the mouse, your text will jump into place, as shown here.
  3. Do the same thing, to tell the next column -- the text after the next tab -- where to start.

  4. Place your cursor at the end of the first line and press Return to start a new line.
  5. Type: "July 3" then a tab, then "Deb's birthday present" another tab, then "Top."

    Notice that the tabs on the second line match those on the first. That's the line's formatting being carried down by the paragraph marker, as I discussed last week. Looking at my results, at least, I see I did pretty well, but need more space before the last column. No problem -- let's fix it.
  6. Because we need to fix both lines, select both lines. You need to select all lines that exist with the same tabs so we can change all of those lines at the same time.
  7. With all necessary lines selected, click on the tab mark in the ruler and drag it to the desired point on the ruler. (In the following screen shot you can see that Word 98 depicts the old tab stop in gray and that I am moving the tab from just after the 3 inch mark to just after the 3 and a half-inch mark.

    A note about step 7: Word 98 is very finicky and a royal pain. It's way too easy to add a new tab instead. You MUST click and drag only the bottom of the "L" tab marker. If you add an extra by mistake, you'll have a quick lesson on deleting extra tab stops -- just drag the extra off the ruler and it'll be gone. You only want one tab stop on the ruler for each tab in your text line.

    After you drag the tab stop, the text jumps to that point. And that, efficiency fans, is the power of tabs. Try changing the font or font size now. When the columns get ugly just repeat steps 6 and

  8. Try adding new words or otherwise editing your text. again, just repeat steps 6 and 7 to repair the damage. (Way easier than adding and deleting tons of extra tab marks, isn't it?)

Other Benefits of Tabs

There are actually more to tabs. A tab can align the text that follows it. A tab can also have "leader" — dotted lines like in a table of contents. But that's too much to cover right now. Now that you have the basics, you can play around on your own.

Hint: double-click any tabs on the ruler to discover some options.

Word 98 Warning: Word 98 adopted a horrible way of changing tab options so be careful that the correct tab is selected in the tab list before you change anything.


Tabs are cool. Tabs are efficient. But only when used correctly. With tabs, less is definitely more. Enjoy. (And if you happen to reread this column around July 3rd, feel free to send me an iCard to let me know you're reading and, hopefully, enjoying this column.)

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