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: How Word Applies Styles.

How Word Applies Styles

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated June 1, 2024)
This tip applies to Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021


If you work with styles quite a bit, you already know that the there are two types of styles you generally work with in a document: character styles and paragraph styles. (Word also allow you to define table and list styles, but they are not used as often as character and paragraph styles, and thus are beyond the scope of this tip.) As their names imply, character styles define how individual characters should appear, while paragraph styles are more comprehensive and define how entire paragraphs should appear.

Word includes quite a number of built-in styles that you can use for your documents. Some of these are defined as character styles, but the majority of them are paragraph styles. The general rules by which style application is governed are as follows:

  1. If characters are selected and you apply a character style, then the attributes of that style are applied to the characters.
  2. If characters are selected and you apply a paragraph style, only the character attributes of the selected style are applied to the selected characters. The original style used for the overall paragraph format remains unchanged.
  3. If no characters are selected and you apply a character style, then there is no effect on the paragraph. If you immediately start typing, however, the character style determines the appearance of what you type.
  4. If no characters are selected and you apply a paragraph style, then the style changes for the entire paragraph and it assumes the attributes of the style you selected. If there were any characters in the paragraph that had individual formatting applied (through styles or through manual formatting), then that formatting remains intact, provided the number of characters so formatted equates to roughly have of the total characters in the paragraph.
  5. If an entire paragraph is selected (as characterized by including the paragraph mark in your selection), and you apply a character style, then all the characters in the paragraph assume the attributes of the selected style.
  6. If an entire paragraph is selected and you apply a paragraph style, then the formatting for the entire paragraph is changed. If there were any characters in the paragraph that had individual formatting applied, then that formatting remains intact, provided the number of characters so formatted equates to roughly have of the total characters in the paragraph.

Remember that these rules are general in nature. It is not beyond Microsoft to modify the rules, ever so slightly, from one version of Word to another. You can verify (or modify) the rules in your version of Word by simply setting up a document with some test text and trying out the scenarios that are recounted in the rules above.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (11623) 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: How Word Applies Styles.

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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