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What does Word style 'Automatically update' really mean?

Every Microsoft Word Style has an option to ‘Automatically Update‘ which sounds great, but can lead to more confusion. Here’s what ‘Automatically Update’ really means, why it’s wise to turn it off and the better alternative.

There are many ‘Automatic’ options in Word that are spread all over the place.  Here we’re talking about Modify Style | Automatically update.

What ‘Automatically update’ does

If you change the formatting for a paragraph in a document with ‘Automatically update’ on, Word will:

  1. Change the formatting for the paragraph
  2. Change the paragraph style to match the new formatting which means ….
  3. Word will change any other text using the same style.

Here’s how it works.  Some paragraphs with a Body Text style set to ‘Automatically update’.

We’ve selected one paragraph (doesn’t have to be the first one) and changed the font size.  With Live Preview, you can see the change applied to the selected paragraph only.

But when you fully apply the change, look what happens. All the paragraphs with that style also change to the same formatting.

That might be what you want.  No messing about in the Modify Style dialog box. Just change the document once and let Word do the rest.  Certainly, that’s why Microsoft put ‘Automatically update’ in Word; to make it easier for novice users and it’s something cool to show off in Office product demonstrations.

But it’s not really worked out that way because there are problems.

  • Novice users are more likely to freak out when their document mysteriously starts changing before their eyes!
  • Expert users hate ‘Automatically update’ because they prefer direct control over styles and don’t want accidental changes creeping in.

Our example shows an obvious change in formatting, but others aren’t so obvious.  For example, choosing ‘Keep with Next’ to link a paragraph to the following content (like text before a picture or chart).  With ‘Automatically update’ ON, that setting is applied to all the paragraphs in that style which can have very strange effects on the page layout.

Automatically Update On or Off

It’s up to you, of course but most Word users keep ‘Automatically Update’ OFF.

The unintended consequences of style changes too often cause confusion.

Undo is your friend

If ‘Automatically Update’ is on, there’s still a way to stop the changes spreading to the rest of the document.

Use Undo – Ctrl + Z.

When you change formatting and it’s applied across the document, that looks like a single event but it’s really two steps.  Have a look at the Undo list to see two steps.

  1. Automatically Update Style
  2. Font Formatting (or whatever paragraph change was done)

Pressing Undo will reverse the change to the style and the changes to other paragraphs.  The changes to the selected paragraph will remain (unless, of course, you click Undo again!).

Update to match selection

A better option is Change Word style to match current paragraph which is the same as ‘Automatically update’ without the automatic bit.  Change a paragraph then choose the update the style to match the changed paragraph.

Change Word style reliably to match current paragraph
Word Style inheritance made clear and simple
Great Word style renaming and alias tricks
Show a Word style marked ‘Hide until used’.

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