Minimizing and Correcting Propagation of Similar Styles

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated July 16, 2021)


Tim notes that when editing an older document that has been through many hands (who generally haven't a clue about styles), the document invariably ends up with loads of very similar styles, all with minor tweaks. He wonders about the best way to minimize this problem and get such documents back to a single set of sensible styles.

This problem has been a frustration to editors and other heavy-duty Word users for years and years. Unfortunately, there is no easy way around this frustration. The real problem is that styles (as you know) are very powerful, and with that power comes a need to use them properly. If you have users who don't use them properly, then that can cause havoc with a document over time.

The solution, then, is to educate users on the proper use of styles. This, however, is not always feasible; you can't always expect your users to become experts in this area of Word.

It takes a bit of work to get rid of the similar styles that show up over time. By way of example, let's say that you send out the document using a custom style called MyStyle. When the document comes back you see it contains variations on the style such as MyStyle1, MyStyle2, MyStyle+Bold, MyStyle+Centered, etc. (There could be any number or variety of these similar styles.) To get rid of them, follow these general steps:

  1. Display the Style task pane. (Display the Home tab of the ribbon and click the small icon at the bottom-right of the Styles group.)
  2. In the list of styles, locate one of the "similars" that you want to get rid of, such as MyStyle2.
  3. Hover the mouse pointer over the style and a down-arrow appears at the right of it.
  4. Click the drop-down arrow and you should see, in the resulting choices, something like Select All X Instances, where X represents the number of times the style is used in the document. Click this option. Word selects everything in the document that uses this style.
  5. In the Style task pane, click on the actual style you want to use, such as MyStyle. This applies the correct style (MyStyle) to all the selected text (MyStyle2).
  6. Click the style's drop-down arrow again and you should see a grayed-out option that says Select All: Not Currently Used. This lets you know that the style is not currently in use in the document and you can select the Delete option (again, from the drop-down menu) to get rid of it.
  7. Repeat steps 2 through 6 until you get rid of all the similar styles you no longer need.

As you can tell, this process is very tedious, and we've never been able to find a macro-based solution to make it less tedious. You can, of course, simply "start over" by opening a brand new document that uses your preferred style sheet, copy all the text from the messed-up document, and use Paste Special | Unformatted Text to get it into the new document. You would then need to go through the pasted text and reapply all the styles as they should be applied.

Which approach is easier (delete unwanted styles vs. reapplying all styles) depends on the length, complexity, and number of unwanted styles in the 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 (13394) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Word in Microsoft 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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What is five minus 4?

2021-07-16 05:01:09

Dr. Bartolo

Greg Maxey has developed a macro-based approach to this problem which he calls "style report." It can be foiund here: This will help clean out unused styles. It has its limtaitons but it gets an awful lot of the way there. I will not try and explain what this does. Greg does that on his web page far better than I could.

2015-08-03 09:22:27


Pasting unformatted text into a clean Word shell works, but that will remove all font formatting and the overall look of the doc, which can be a pain in the neck for a highly structured legal doc. It is better to select all text in the "bad" doc and paste it into WordPad (NOT Notepad). WordPad will retain the look of the original doc. Then select all (ctrl+A from WordPad and paste into the clean Word shell on a Normal paragraph marker. Make sure to click on the Paste Options icon that appears at the bottom of the pasted text and select Keep Source Formatting. This has been our team's go-to fix for docs that have become heavily corrupted.

2015-08-03 09:21:17

Paul Stregevsky (formerly Maryland, USA)

@Art Osgatharp,
The Restrict Editing is loathed by section writers, and I can appreciate why: It's not sufficiently granular. Consider:
1. When you lock down styles, you prevent users from adding, redefining, or overriding a style. But nearly always, the style keeper / locker has...
- overlooked the legitimate need to use a forbidden style (such as a numbered list, or an indented bullet list),
- overlooked the legitimate need to use a character override (such as a superscript or dropout grey),
- and arrogantly assumed that the style was just perfect the way it's been defined, when in fact, their heading styles are missing a "hanging indent," or their the hanging indent gets thrown off by an overlong number (such as 2.13), or a paragraph style mistakenly allows--or fails to allow--autohyphenation.
2. When you lock down paragraph and character styles, you lock down much, much more. People can no longer tweak the structure of a table, whether it's to straddle cells, redefine which rows are header rows, or change the cell padding. They can no longer redefine attributes of the page, even if the page is screwed up. In short, they can't fix what absolutely must be fixed.

Sure, the section writer can appeal to the style keeper. But guess what will happen? The style keeper will quickly, and unfairly, become annoyed, because the section writer is not only taking up his time but also reminding him of his failings.

3. Other reasons that I've overlooked because, as a wise man said, "Whenever you make a list, you accidentally leave something out.

I write this as a technical proposal writer who tried to lock down styles but abandoned the idea after colleagues rebelled.

2015-08-03 03:47:18

steve norris

The accumulation of styles is a real pain, especially when it's been around other language cultures. However, I disagree with your method of selecting all of the modified style(s) and reverting them back to their original.

There are instances where a novice will have modified a style locally to achieve a specific effect. Although not the best way to do it, if you then re-apply the original style you could destroy their attempt at formatting and completely lose the message.

Incidentally, I believe if you delete a modified style, you are prompted to revert to the original anyway.

2015-08-01 20:05:31


I truly H A T E editing in Word. It is ok, perhaps, to originate a document, but as above, when it passes through the hands of even 2-3 people before getting to me, it is IMPOSSIBLE.

That said, I'm so grateful for this site. Thank you.

I wish I never heard of Styles.

Also wish I could turn on something like the old Word Perfect where you could see everything. You can't really in Word.

I do not understand why the people who developed Word think all the changes are so wonderful. They are not.... just saying.

2015-08-01 12:45:09

Art Osgatharp

In some cases it may be useful to prepare the document ahead of time to limit the styles that people can use when modifying the document, the kinds of changes that they can make, and the portions of a document they can change. This may be done by clicking Review, then Restrict Editing in the Protect group of the Review ribbon.

In the Restrict Editing task pane, check the box under 1. Formatting restrictions, then click the Settings link to restrict what styles can be used.

Option 2., Editing restrictions, may be useful to further control the kinds of changes that can be made.

The Exceptions option may enable you to permit selected individuals to make changes if the document is in an access-controlled environment, such as Active Directory, where authorized users can be specified in the format [Domain][Username].

When the desired settings are selected, click Yes, Start Enforcing Protection under Option 3. Enter a password when prompted, or just click OK if no password protection is required.

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