Underlining Cells, Not Space Between Cells

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated October 31, 2020)

Goldie wants to know if there is a way to underline table cells but not underline the spacing between cells. This would affect a break in the underlining between cells and not have just one continuous line across all the cells. (Goldie is referring to the actual cells here, not the words within the cells.) She added .05 spacing between the cells because she thought this would do it, but instead it just increased the length of the underlining for each cell so that the lines meet and create on big line.

The key to successfully doing this is to remember that there is a difference between cell borders and borders applied to contents within a cell. This means that there are multiple ways you can go about doing the formatting. Assuming you already have a table, follow these steps to see one way:

  1. Place the insertion point somewhere within the table.
  2. Display the Layout tab of the ribbon. (This tab is available only when you've completed step 1.)
  3. Click the Select tool (in the Table group) and then choose Select Table. Word selects the entire table.
  4. Display the Table Design or Design (depending on your version of Word) tab of the ribbon.
  5. Click the Borders tool (in the Borders or Table Styles group, again depending on your version of Word) and then choose No Border. This makes sure that there are no borders on any of the cells in the table.
  6. Click the Borders tool again, but this time choose Borders and Shading (the last option available in the drop-down list). Word displays the Borders and Shading dialog box.
  7. Make sure the Borders tab is selected. (See Figure 1.)
  8. Figure 1. The Borders tab of the Borders and Shading dialog box.

  9. Using the Apply To drop-down list, choose Paragraph.
  10. Click the None preset at the upper-left corner of the dialog box.
  11. Click a line style from the Style list.
  12. In the Preview area, click the Bottom button or click at the bottom of the preview itself.
  13. Click OK.

Word applies a bottom border the width of the text area within each cell. If you later adjust the cell margins (as Goldie did), the width of the text within the cell changes, as does the width of the border.

For simple tables, this approach works great. The problem occurs when you have differing amounts of text in the cells in the table. Since the border always appears at the bottom of the text, this can lead to some funky results. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Applying a bottom border to the paragraphs within a cell.

Of course, you could get around this funkiness a bit by formatting the cell contents so that they all are vertically aligned to the bottom of each cell. Besides moving all the text to the bottom of the cell (vertically), this also moves all the lines down to the bottom of each cell.

If you do a bit of inspecting in the Borders and Shading dialog box, you'll see that borders can be applied to Text, Paragraph, Cell, or Table. The Paragraph option is the only one that behaves as described so far. Further, it is the only one that responds to changes in the cell margins.

If, instead, you want the actual border to apply to the cells themselves, then the only way we've discovered to get the desired effect is to add "spacer columns" between your data columns. These columns can be very thin, but the idea is that they wouldn't contain any information at all—you would just use them to provide a buffer area between columns that would otherwise be abutting. You can then add bottom borders to all the cells in the table but remove them from the cells in the spacer columns.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (13179) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Word in Office 365.

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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