Beyond simple Undo in Microsoft Office

There’s a lot more to Undo than just reversing the last thing you did in Microsoft Office

The UNDO command is surely one of the greatest time-saving inventions of the digital age. According to Jensen Harris, the head honcho of the Microsoft Office User Experience Team back in 2008 , undo is the fourth-most used command in Microsoft Word. (It slots in after Paste, Save and Copy and immediately before Bold.)

That popularity is no surprise. Before undo, disaster was a keystroke or a mouse-slip away; with undo, we’re protected from many of our bludners <g>.

Microsoft first implemented undo in Word 1.0 for DOS. Word 1.0 provided a single level of undo: you could correct your last action, and that was it – but if you were around in those days, you’ll know how wondrous that single-level undo seemed.

These days, we have multi-level undo commands in almost all of the Office applications, with matching multi-level REDO to reinstate accidentally undone actions. Some of the Office apps limit the number of undo levels; Word 2007, on the other hand, provides an almost unlimited undo for the current editing session – that is, while you keep the document open.

Undo is really a short-term form of backup. Our Everyday Backups book has a chapter ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ which covers many such tricks to recover things you thought your computer had gobbled up.

Still, probably the handiest way to do a quick undo is to press Ctrl+Z – one of the main shortcuts in Office which also works in many other programs.

To undo multiple changes, you can either press Ctrl+Z repeatedly or use the undo toolbar button.

The Ctrl+Y shortcut will re-apply your last undo.


Note that what constitutes an undoable “action” is not entirely predictable, especially in Word. You might think that each character you type would constitute an “action”, but that’s not the case. Word treats a block of text as an “action”, so when you click the undo button, you may find a whole paragraph – or even a larger slab of text – disappears, rather than the single character/word/sentence you thought might evaporate.

Things that constitute individual actions in Word include:

  • Reformatting an element.
  • Any auto-correct action (such as a straight quote being converted to a curly apostrophe or Word auto-correcting a double-capital).
  • Any series of actions you perform within a dialog box, such as altering multiple elements via the Font dialog.


In Word, Excel and PowerPoint, clicking the undo toolbar button undoes the last action; clicking the arrow on the right of the button displays a drop-down list of undone actions. Select any of the listed actions to undo all actions from that point onwards.

There’s no way to undo a particular action without undoing subsequent actions. For example, if you do the following:

  • type a sentence;
  • format the first letter as a drop cap;
  • format the third word in small caps; and
  • format the whole sentence bold.

If you then use the undo list to reverse the drop cap you’ll also lose the subsequent small caps and bold formatting.

There is, however, a workaround you can use to resurrect text you may regret having deleted or changed.

Say you create a document and go through five revisions of your first paragraph before finally being happy with it (first paragraphs are always a bear), then continue to work on the rest of the document. But when you finish editing and read through your first para once more, you realise the original version was better. Alas, it’s long gone.

Here’s how to get that original back, without losing the rest of your document:

  1. Save your document (but don’t close it), in case anything goes wrong with the following steps.
  2. Click the drop-down arrow on the undo button, scroll all the way down the list to the bottom and click the first command.
  3. Click the Redo button repeatedly until your desired first paragraph is resurrected.
  4. Select the paragraph and Copy it to the clipboard (do not cut it!).
  5. Click the drop-down arrow on the redo button, scroll all the way to the bottom and click the first command to restore the rest of your document.
  6. Go to the top of the document and paste in the saved first paragraph, then delete the unwanted opening paragraph.

If you’re thinking ahead (ie you think you might need text you’ve deleted) the alternative is to turn on ‘Track Changes’ which will store all deleted or changed text. You can then view all changes in a document and restore deleted text individually. But this only works from the point you switch on revision tracking.


It’s imperative in step 4 above to copy the text and not to cut it, because cutting text empties the Redo queue. If you cut the paragraph in step 4, you’ll lose almost all your document.

There are other actions which can trash the redo list. In Excel 2003, the simple act of saving your document empties the list. In Excel 2003 and 2007, running a macro will produce the same result. Word now is smarter about this and will let you save a document or run a macro without interfering with the redo list.

There are also certain actions which, in themselves, are not undoable. In Office 2007, for example, anything you do via the Office button is not undoable.

Undoing Word’s Automatic Capitalizations
Undo a Sent message in Outlook