Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021. If you are using an earlier version (Word 2003 or earlier), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for earlier versions of Word, click here: Searching for Characters.

Searching for Characters

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated July 16, 2022)
This tip applies to Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021


In order to perform character searches, you must first enable pattern matching by allowing wildcards in your searches. To do this, you need to pull up either the Find or Replace tabs of the Find and Replace dialog box and click on the More button. In Word 2013 or a later version, type Ctrl+F to bring up the search pane on the left side of the window. Click on the magnifying glass and select Advanced Find which will display the Find and Replace dialog box; click More. In the expanded area of the dialog box, make sure the Use Wildcards checkbox is selected. This causes Word to interpret what is in the Find What and Replace With boxes entirely differently than if the checkbox is not selected.

With pattern matching in Word enabled, you can easily specify the exact characters you want to search for. This is done by enclosing the characters in square brackets. For instance, if you want to search for an uppercase A, you would specify this as [A]. If you wanted to search for other characters in addition to the A, you would place them in the brackets as well. For instance, [AEIOUaeiou] searches for all vowels, in either upper- or lowercase.

You can also specify a range of characters you want to search for within the brackets. For example, if you want to search for any digit, you could search for [0-9]. This will match any single digit between 0 and 9. Ranges, of course, can be combined with other characters to find specific characters. Thus, you could specify [A-E0-4] and Word would find only the characters A, B, C, D, E, 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4.

You should note that a pair of square brackets is used to denote a single character to be matched. If you want to find a sequence of characters, then you need to use multiple brackets. For instance, let's say you have a document that has some part numbers in it. These are designated by your company as the characters PN- followed by a single uppercase letter between A and D, followed by a single digit, followed by any uppercase letter of the alphabet. To search for these, without returning other easily confused sequences, you would use PN-[A-D][0-9][A-Z] as your search string. This returns sequences of three characters and only three.

Another helpful modifier to use within the brackets is the exclamation point. This is the same as saying "not" or "anything except." For instance, if you wanted to match any character except lowercase vowels, you would use [!aeiou]. This character must be used at the beginning of the characters within the brackets. Thus, [!abcdef] is valid, whereas [abc!def] is not. This really does make sense, since [!abcdef] is logically correct whereas [abc!def] is logically inconsistent.

Pattern matching in Word also understands that a question mark is a placeholder for a single character and an asterisk is a placeholder for any number of characters. In other words, if you searched for n?t, Word would find nut, not, and net. If you instead searched for n*t, those three words would be matched as well as neat, next, and the portion of "pattern matching" between the n (in pattern) and the t (in matching).

If you wanted to actually search for a hyphen, an exclamation point, a question mark, an asterisk, a bracket, a brace, the greater-than character, the less-than character, the at sign, or parentheses (all of which have special meaning), simply precede the character with a back slash (\). For instance, if you wanted to search for characters used to end sentences (period, question mark, and exclamation mark), you would enter your specification as [.\?\!].

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (270) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021. You can find a version of this tip for the older menu interface of Word here: Searching for Characters.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

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