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Using the Ruler in Microsoft Word

Back in the old days of personal computing (in the 1980s), there was one way, and one way only, to complete a software task. Today’s programs, however, try to be all things to all people. Thus, for any given task, you can choose a menu option, press a keyboard shortcut, click an icon, and so on. The choice you make depends on your personal preferences and what you are doing at the time. When typing content, using a keyboard shortcut keeps your fingers on the keys. When you are concerned with layout, mouse clicking and dragging may produce more visible, interactive results. You can set the margins of paragraphs with shortcut keys or menu options with dialog box settings, but the more visual method involves using the ruler.

Displaying the Ruler
The ruler appears near the top of your document window and controls the horizontal spacing of paragraph margins, tables, columns, and tabs. Figure 1 shows the ruler with its default settings. If you don’t see the ruler, click Ruler on the View menu. The choice you make depends on your personal preferences and what you are doing at the time.


Figure 1: Ruler with default settings

The numbered white area on the ruler shows the typing area of the document. Gray areas are outside of the margins. The numbers indicate the distance in inches from the left margin, not the edge of the paper. Large tick marks are half-inch points; the smaller tick marks are eighths of an inch.

The markers on the bottom of the left and right sides of the ruler show the left and right margins of the paragraph. When you drag these markers within the white area of the ruler, you increase the paragraph’s margins. In other words, the paragraph will hold fewer characters. Figure 2 illustrates two copies of the same paragraph — one has the default margins, while the second has larger left and right margins. Since the insertion point is in the second copy of the paragraph, the ruler shows the left and right markers’ new positions.


Figure 2: The effect of increasing paragraph margins

The other markers on the left side of the ruler control the indentation of the first line of the paragraph. Dragging the first line indent marker to the right a half inch moves the first line of the paragraph, only — the other lines of the paragraph stay at the left margin. This type of paragraph indentation appears in Figure 3.


Figure 3: Paragraph with first line indent

The fourth marker on the ruler establishes a hanging indent. With a hanging indent, the first line of the paragraph appears to the left of the rest of the lines — thus, “hanging” over the edge. To create such a paragraph, drag the hanging indent marker to the left of the left margin marker, as shown in Figure 4.


Figure 4: The effect of changing the hanging indent marker

Setting Tabs on the Ruler
Pressing tab on the keyboard causes the insertion point to move to the next half-inch point on the ruler. Although invisible, Microsoft Word sets up regularly spaced half tabs by default. Once you set your own tabs, however, the default tabs that precede your tabs are cleared automatically. To set a tab, just click on the ruler wherever you want the tab to be — a tab marker appears. To move the tab, drag the tab marker to the left or right. To remove a tab, drag the marker down and drop it anywhere below the ruler. Figure 5 shows a list with several tabbed columns. Note the “L”s on the ruler and how the list items align on these points.


Figure 5: A tabbed list of three columns

Not all tabs align on the left. There are several different types of tabs available to you. You can choose the type of tab you want by clicking on the tab type indicator on the far left side of the ruler. The first time you click there, the left tab symbol changes to a center tab symbol, then to a right tab symbol, a decimal tab symbol, a bar tab, a first line indent, a hanging indent, and back to a left tab. Figure 6 includes four tabbed columns — a center tab, a right tab, a decimal tab, and a bar tab. (The bar tab causes a line to be drawn at that point and isn’t really a tabbed column for typing text.)


Figure 6: Center, right, decimal, and bar-tabbed columns

Column and Table Formatting on the Ruler
The ruler is also great for manipulating widths and spacing of Word columns. Figure 7 illustrates a three-column section created in Microsoft Word. The width of each column is white, while the spacing between columns is gray. Each column can have its own paragraph formatting. You will see the margin markers in whichever column the insertion point is.


Figure 7: Columns and gutters on the ruler

The gray space in between columns is called the “gutter.” Moving your pointer to the gutter space lets you change the width of the columns and gutter. If you drag the left edge of the gutter to the left, the gutter widens and the column to the left shrinks. If you drag to the right, the gutter shrinks and the column to the left widens. Similarly, dragging the right edge of the gutter affects both the gutter width and the column to the right. If you drag the center of the gutter, the gutter width stays the same but the widths of the columns to the right and left both change.

When you create a table in Microsoft Word, the ruler looks very much as it does when you have columns; that is, each column has its own paragraph formatting, width, and gutter space. The main difference is that you can’t change the space between columns using the ruler — you have to change the setting in the Table Properties dialog box.

Other Options and Notes
  • Drag the border between the gray and white parts of the ruler to change the page margins. Make sure you position your pointer so it changes to a double-headed arrow and the words Left Margin or Right Margin appear.

  • If you hold down the Alt key while dragging on the ruler, you will see the exact measurements of the margins. If you need more precision than that, use the dialog boxes for Page Setup, Paragraph, Tabs, etc.

  • In the Print Layout view, you will see a vertical ruler on the left side of the window. You can drag the border between the gray and white areas to change the top or bottom margins of a page. When working in a table, the vertical ruler lets you change the height of rows.



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