tabs and tab stopsFor horizontal space in the middle of a line

On type­writ­ers, the tab key moved the car­riage to a fixed hor­i­zon­tal po­si­tion, marked with a tab stop. This al­lowed typ­ists to cre­ate columns of text or num­bers, also known as tab­u­lar lay­outs (hence the name tab).

Tabs and tab stops still work the same way. A tab stop marks a lo­ca­tion; typ­ing a tab moves the cur­sor to that location.

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These days, the tab is used only for in­sert­ing hor­i­zon­tal space in the mid­dle of a line. If you need hor­i­zon­tal space at the be­gin­ning of a para­graph, ad­just the first-line in­dent. For a true tab­u­lar lay­out, use a ta­ble, not tabs.

The tab is not as vi­tal as it once was, but word proces­sors still short­change its ca­pa­bil­i­ties. A new word-pro­cess­ing doc­u­ment has de­fault tab stops every half inch. These de­fault tab stops ex­ist so that some­thing hap­pens when you type a tab in the new doc­u­ment. But this de­fault be­hav­ior also sug­gests that what the tab key does is move the cur­sor a half inch at a time. Not true.

To get the most out of tabs, you should set your own tab stops. Avoid re­ly­ing on the de­fault tab stops—they un­der­mine the goals of con­trol and pre­dictabil­ity. As with word spaces, also avoid us­ing se­quences of tabs to move the cur­sor around the screen.

To see your tab stops, dis­play the ruler.

How to display the ruler

Word ViewShow panel → Ruler

OS X Word ViewRuler

Pages ViewShow Ruler, or type ⌘ + r

With the ruler vis­i­ble, you can edit your tab stops.

How to work with tab stops
  1. To in­sert a new tab stop, click in the ruler where you want the tab stop.

  2. To move a tab stop, click and drag it in the ruler.

  3. To change a tab stop from one kind to an­other, dou­ble-click it in the ruler. In Pages, you can also right-click it.

  4. To re­move a tab stop, drag it off the ruler.

The usual tab stop is a left tab stop, mean­ing text un­der the tab stop aligns to its left edges. Word proces­sors also of­fer cen­ter and right tab stops, hav­ing the ex­pected ef­fects, as well as dec­i­mal tab stops that align columns of num­bers along their dec­i­mal points.

Use the proper tab stop for the job. For in­stance, don’t use a cen­ter tab stop to line up grids of num­bers. A right tab can be use­ful in a doc­u­ment footer to put two pieces of text (e.g., the doc­u­ment ti­tle and the page num­ber) at op­po­site ends of the same line.

Tabs are used in bul­leted and num­bered lists to sep­a­rate the bul­let or num­ber from the text. Tabs are also used in au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ated ta­bles of con­tents and ta­bles of au­thor­i­ties to put the page num­bers at the right edge of the table.

Tabs and tab stops have their place, but in most cases they act as a less-ca­pa­ble al­ter­na­tive to a ta­ble. Use tabs and tab stops if your for­mat­ting task is truly sim­ple. If not, up­grade to a table.

by the way
  • You can fill the space in front of a tab (for in­stance, with pe­ri­ods or un­der­scores) by us­ing a tab leader. Don’t ap­prox­i­mate this ef­fect by typ­ing a hun­dred pe­ri­ods or un­der­scores man­u­ally in front of a tab. That will lead to un­pleas­ant consequences.

  • In HTML, there are no tabs or tab stops. But HTML does sup­port tables.