Workaround for styles with table cells in Word

There’s a limitation in Word’s Table Styles; no individual cell styles within a Word table We’ll explain the problem and several options to workaround it.

Along the way it’s a chance to dig into some interesting parts of Word and Office and make them do things that might not have occurred to you.

There’s a need to apply a named style to individual table cells, for example styles for the four special cells in this table (maybe for high, low or special values).

Since Word 2007, tables can have named styles, a group of settings that can be applied to a table.  The settings include formatting for the overall table, rows, columns etc.  However, there’s no feature to apply a style to individual cells, except for four special cases (the four corner cells).

What you can’t do is add a special cell style to apply to individual cells – for example cells with Low, High, Outlier or just something you want to stand out.

Change cell look

Change any Word table cell formatting, just select the cell (not just the text) then go to Table Design and make the changes you like, such as shading and border.

We’d like to have a style called say ‘High Score’ that can change the look of an individually selected cell from the styles list.

Sadly, that’s not possible.  Word’s Table Styles just don’t allow for it. They should, but don’t.

Ideally cells, rows and columns should all have individual styles to override the presets within the Table Style.

What workarounds are available within the features Microsoft has given us?

Format Painter

If all you need is consistency of formatting between cells you might think Format Painter is the solution. Format Painter copies the look of a selection and applies that formatting to another selection.

It’s a great theory and, in our opinion, should work.  It doesn’t.

We tried various Word’s and none of them would copy cell formatting (Ctrl + Shift + C) to another cell (Ctrl + Shift + V).

The formatting of a selection within a cell can be copied but not the entire cells formatting.

So much for that idea …

Paragraph Styles

The next possibility is paragraph styles.  Within each cell is text with style formatting (paragraph, character or linked), just like all text in Word.  See: What is a Style in Word, Excel or Outlook?

We made a style, cunningly called ‘Special Cell’, with border shading for the background.  You can see the result here.

The text gets the background coloring but not entire cell. That’s because there’s an internal margin within each cell to separate the cell contents from the cell borders.

Cell borders are deep in the Table Properties | Cell | Options | Cell Margins.

Of course, normally cell margins are the same for the entire table.

Changing one cell margins might not work because the top/bottom margins need to be the same for the entire row (give it a try, if you like).

Despite that limitation, maybe paragraph styles are enough; a design compromise you can live with.

To apply background colors in a bar across the cell make sure you use Paragraph | Shading not Font | Shading.


If you need individual cell formatting and do it regularly, the best solution is to use Excel.

Excel Styles work with individual cells, unlike Word.

Paste or link a selection or table from Excel into Word. See Putting Excel into Word.

Start by copying your existing Word table into Excel or make a table first in Excel.

Excel will convert a Word table nicely (which can’t always be said moving the other way!)

If you have cells already specially formatted, convert them in Excel cell styles easily.  Select the cell then Cell Styles | New Cell Style.  The current cell formatting is copied into the new style.  Just give the new style a name.

If you wish, click Format … to make other formatting changes to the style.

Custom Cell styles appear in the Style Gallery ready to apply to as many cells as you like.

See Four great Excel cell styles

Conditional Formatting

Excel also has conditional formatting so you can automatically colorize cells according to their value.

That means your Excel table could automatically highlight high, low or out of range values.

Fake ‘styles’ for cells

Word doesn’t have separate cell styles but you can fake it with a little VBA code to apply consistent cell formatting. See Make styles for individual table cells in Word