Margins Automatically Move to Indent

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated May 25, 2021)
This tip applies to Word 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016


When Wayne creates a new document, it has half-inch margins on all sides. Yet, when he begins to indent just once, he notices that the left margin moves over to where he indented. Then he begins the battle of having the margins stay where he wants them. Wayne wonders what is going on.

Before discussing what may be going on in Wayne's situation, it is a good idea to understand the difference between margins and indents. A margin, in Word, is the space left around the outside of a document. For instance, you may have half-inch margins set, and that defines the whitespace on all sides of the document. Margins can be changed on a section-by-section basis within a document.

Indents are applied to paragraphs and are cumulative with margins. For instance, if you have a half-inch margin and you indent a paragraph by a half-inch, there will be a full inch of whitespace to the left of the paragraph. If all the paragraphs on a page have the same half-inch indent, it is easy to think that the margin for the page has changed, but it has not—the margin is still set to a half-inch.

Because it is easy to confuse margins and indents, it is important to figure out what is happening with your own document. The easiest way to check your margin is using the Page Setup dialog box. To display the dialog box, display the Page Layout or Layout tab of the ribbon (depending on your version of Word) and click the small icon in the lower-right corner of the Page Setup group. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. The Margins tab of the Page Setup dialog box.

Note the Margins area, near the top of the page. The settings here indicate the page margins for the current section of the document. In Wayne's case, where he is concerned about the left margin, he should make note of the Left setting in the dialog box. (Simply jot it down on a piece of paper.) When completed, you can click OK (if you made changes in the margins) or Cancel (if you made no changes).

To check the indent for a paragraph, simply place the insertion point within the paragraph you want to check. (You could select the entire paragraph, but there is really no need—just make sure that the insertion point is in the paragraph.) Then, display the Paragraph dialog box. You do this by displaying the Home tab of the ribbon and clicking the small icon at the bottom-right corner of the Paragraph group. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. The Paragraph dialog box.

Note the Indentation area near the center of the dialog box. This is where the Left and Right indents can be set for the paragraph. In Wayne's case, he should note the Left setting. It is the Left setting in the Page Setup dialog box, added to the Left setting in the Paragraph dialog box, that specifies how much whitespace appears at the left of this particular paragraph.

If the paragraph indentation is not what you expect, then you can make changes to the Left setting and click on OK. (If you make no changes, just click on Cancel.) Note that any changes you make affect only the paragraph in which the insertion pointer is located.

If the Left setting was larger than desired, then it is very possible that Word is simply misunderstanding your use of the Tab key. For many people who come from a typing background (using typewriters), you press the Tab key to indent the first line of a paragraph. Word, on the other hand, may be interpreting this press of the Tab key as a desire to indent the entire paragraph. You can change this behavior by following these steps:

  1. Display the Word Options dialog box. (In Word 2007 click the Office button and then click Word Options. In Word 2010 and later versions display the File tab of the ribbon and then click Options.)
  2. At the left side of the dialog box click Proofing.
  3. Click the AutoCorrect Options button. Word displays the AutoCorrect dialog box.
  4. Make sure the AutoFormat As You Type tab is displayed. (See Figure 3.)
  5. Figure 3. The AutoFormat As You Type tab of the AutoCorrect dialog box.

  6. Make sure the Set Left- and First-Indent with Tabs and Backspaces option is cleared.
  7. Click OK to dismiss the AutoCorrect dialog box.
  8. Click OK to dismiss the Word Options dialog box.

It is this setting (step 5) that controls how the Tab key behaves. Clearing the setting makes the Tab key function as you expect, meaning it doesn't move the indent for the entire paragraph. It also means that your "margins," so to speak, should not appear to jump around as you create your document.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (4365) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016.

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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What is nine more than 7?

2021-12-22 18:37:20

jeremy rutman

Margins seem to adjust to window size in word 365 (v 16.56) which is rather infuriating. The tips as to how to control the margins have of course all changed as well, invalidating otherwise useful advice as that in your column. No File->options, and Layout ->Margins tab doesn't seem to affect much on this front . Back to open office, which at least is predictable....

2021-01-25 19:50:45


Thank you, Allen. That fixed one problem but created another.

After changing this setting, the first line is no longer indenting when I tab. That's perfect! However, when I'm typing a bulleted list, I have the first bullet point appearing correctly, but when press "Enter" to go to the next line, I want to create a sub-bullet. The cursor moves to the place I want the bullet point to appear, but the bullet is automatically placed directly under the previous bullet. Is there another setting that controls how bullets behave when the "Set Left- and First-Indent with Tabs and Backspaces" option is cleared?

Thank you!

2020-08-25 20:45:34

Prince Kumar

Nice question

2019-09-25 12:31:17


Allen, I just want to say thank you for this tip. I was going crazy trying to keep my left margins intact and could find nothing on the internet that solved that problem untiil I came across your tips. It was right on, exactly what I needed. Such a simple solution that I would never have figured out. Thanks so much for your Word Tips.

2017-10-19 10:21:36


Thanks, Mark. I appreciate the kind words.

Indents apply to ALL of the lines in a paragraph, not just the first line. In the Paragraph dialog box (figure above, in the tip) the Left setting pushes the entire paragraph to the right by however much space you indicate in that setting. If you want to indent the first line of a paragraph differently than the rest of the lines in the paragraph, then you use the Special drop-down list in the same dialog box and choose to adjust the first-line.

Hope that helps.


2017-10-19 09:46:35

Mark A Rock


Great tip. Learned a few things. Just one nit.

In a couple places you stated something which I found ambiguous. For example, you stated:

"Indents are applied to paragraphs and are cumulative with margins. For instance, if you have a half-inch margin and you indent a paragraph by a half-inch, there will be a full inch of whitespace to the left of the paragraph."

I understand that your statement that "there will be a full inch of whitespace to the left of the paragraph" was intended to convey that there will be a full inch of whitespace to the left of the first line of the paragraph, not the entire paragraph, but it was a bit confusing to me upon first read. Perhaps it could have been better stated? Or am I missing something?

As I said, a nit. Otherwise great work! I learn a lot.


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