Get into the basics of Styles in Word

Here’s the basics of Styles in Word for paragraph, character or both (Linked) plus Tables and Lists. I know talking about styles in Word makes eyes glaze over but they are a really useful part of Word (plus Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook).

Today I watched an ‘experienced’ Word user reformatting a document.  He laboriously worked through the document, selecting paragraphs, phrases and even individual words then clicking on the ribbon to change the look.  It took 10 minutes or more.  With styles it would have taken a few seconds.

Styles have been around for all of Word’s history.  They have changed and expanded over the years but the fundamentals are the same.

In this article we’ll explain the different types of styles including at least one that sneaked in without many people noticing.   From just one type in the early days of Word, there’s five different style types in modern Microsoft Word.

What is a Style?

A style is just a collection of formatting settings under a single name.

For example  ‘Heading 1’ has these default values in Word (choose Heading 1 style, right-click and choose ‘Modify Style’.

So ‘Heading 1’ means Cambria font, 14pt, Bold with a color setting, Left justified, 1.15 line spacing and 24pt line space before the text, plus other settings.

Instead of having to apply all those separate formatting options for each main heading, just apply the ‘Heading 1’ style.

Even better, if you decide to change the look of the headings, change the ‘Heading 1’ settings and all the headings with that style will be changed automatically.

Paragraph and Character styles

There are different types of style that can be applied to different parts of a document. Originally there were only Paragraph styles – styles you could apply to an entire paragraph.

That was OK but no help if you wanted consistent formatting for words in a paragraph like a product name  or just emphasis.

So Microsoft added character styles.  These are styles that can be applied to a word or even a single letter.  A character style could be called ‘Product Name’ to ensure all references to a product or service look consistent.

Character styles have all the attributes of paragraph styles that are applicable to individual characters.  Things like font, size, color, bold, italic etc are in both character and paragraph styles.  Line spacing, Left/Right/Center/Justify etc. can only apply to entire paragraphs.

Linked styles

Adding character styles created a new problem.  Microsoft discovered that users sometimes had two styles with the same name – one as a paragraph style, the other as a character style.  Or people would have two styles such as ‘QuoteP’ and QuoteC’ with the same settings, one for paragraphs and another for word/characters.

So Word 2007 introduced ‘Linked Styles‘ which act as both a paragraph style and character style, depending on the situation.

A linked style acts like a paragraph style when a paragraph/s is selected and the style applied.

It acts like a character style when less than a paragraph (a character/word/phrase) is selected and the style applied.

Gone is the need for ‘twin’ styles – now you can have a single style that can applied to any text in a document.

The best example of a linked style is already in Word 2007 and later.  All the Heading styles were changed to linked styles.  Here’s an example of ‘Heading 1’ style used as both a paragraph and character style at the same time.

Both the paragraph and words were changed to the same style by selecting them and pressing the ‘Heading 1’ shortcut Ctrl + Alt + 1 .  The Style Gallery or styles list could have been used to do the same thing.

In the Modify Style dialog you’ll see the style type just under the name.

‘Linked’ isn’t the best choice of terms for this type of style. Most styles are already ‘linked’ to others through style inheritance.  ‘Merged’ or ‘Combined’ might have been clearer to most people – but we’re stuck with ‘Linked’.

Which is which?

On the styles list, the three types of style have their own markers.

The lower case ‘a’ next to a character style.

The ‘backwards P’ or Pilcrow is used as an end of paragraph mark in Word and also serves to denote a Paragraph style.

The combined pilcrow and a is, unsurprisingly, for a linked style.

Alas, the Style Gallery on the ribbon isn’t as clear.  Among various (ignored) complaints about the Style Gallery is the inconsistent marking.

Paragraph styles (e.g. Normal, Pictures etc.) have the pilcrow next to the style name.

Linked paragraphs (Heading styles etc.) have no marking next to the name.

But neither do the character styles!  In the above image there’s no way to know that ‘Subtle Emphasis’ is a character style.


A brief mention of style inheritance.

Styles are normally based on an existing style so only changes from the inherited style need to be made.  This lets you apply broader changes to a document a lot faster.

For example, here’s settings for Heading 2

Heading 2 is based on the Heading 1 style, so all the settings for Heading 1 are used for Heading 2 as a starting point.

The settings like ’13pt, Not Bold …’ etc. are only the differences between Heading 1 and what’s been changed to the look for Heading 2.

If the font for Heading 1 is changed then the font for Heading 2 will also change due to style inheritance.

In a standard Word document, styles can usually be traced back to some base Word styles like Normal and Default Paragraph Font (paragraph and character styles respectively).  However you can create a style ‘from scratch’ with no inheritance.  Here’s the same Heading 2 style with the ‘Style based on’ removed.

Now you can see all the formatting attributes in detail.

Unlinking styles might seem like a good idea that makes things simpler, but experienced Word users almost never do it.  Style inheritance can be a nuisance at times, but its more helpful than a hindrance.

What’s going on?

Sometimes the formatting can get confusing.  What’s a paragraph setting, what’s a character style and what is directly applied with no style?  WordPerfect had a ‘Reveal Codes’ feature which Microsoft resisted copying but finally added to Word.

There’s two options for exposing what Word is up to. The Style Inspector (Word 2007 and later) and Reveal Formatting.  Here’s both in action side-by-side.

As you can see the Style Inspector is a small box that can be dragged around the screen.  Open the Style Inspector from the button at the bottom of the Styles pane:

Reveal Formatting has a lot more detail and sits in the right-hand pane.  There’s a button for Reveal Formatting on the Style Inspector box.

The Shift + F1 shortcut will open the Reveal Formatting pane. This shortcut has worked since Word 2002 (XP).

Table and List styles

Added in Word 2007 were two more styles.

Table styles, let you group together all the many formatting options for tables.

Similarly, all the options for list formatting were a nightmare until Word 2007 when List Styles were introduced.  Now all the, sometimes complex, choices for lists (numbering, indenting at each level) can be more easily and consistently applied.

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