Keeping Centered Headers and Footers Centered

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated October 12, 2020)


Patsy has a document that has headers and footers in it. Each has information at three places: left, centered, and right. If she later changes the margins of the document, the previously centered portion is no longer centered. (The center-aligned tab was set based upon the old line width, which is no longer valid after the margin change.) Patsy wonders if there is a way to set up the header or footers so that the centered information remains centered, even if she needs to change margins.

The traditional way to solve this problem is to put a three-celled, single-row table in the header or footer. You can put text in the left, center, and right cells and then format or align that text any way you like within the cell. As long as the table width is set to 100%, it will adjust automatically to any changes in the overall line width.

Starting with Word 2007, however, there is an even better way to get the desired result: through the use of alignment tabs. Follow these steps:

  1. Open the header or footer area, depending on which one you want to change. (Simply double-click in the header or footer area to open it to editing.)
  2. Type the text you want left-aligned in the header or footer.
  3. Display the Design tab of the ribbon.
  4. In the Position group, click the Insert Alignment Tab tool. Word displays the Alignment Tab dialog box. (See Figure 1.)
  5. Figure 1. The Alignment Tab dialog box.

  6. Click the Center radio button.
  7. Make sure the Align Relative To drop-down list is set to Margin.
  8. Click OK to close the Alignment tab dialog box.
  9. Type the information you want centered in the header or footer.
  10. Again click the Insert Alignment Tab tool, as you did in step 4. Word again displays the Alignment Tab dialog box.
  11. Click the Right radio button.
  12. Make sure the Align Relative To drop-down list is set to Margin.
  13. Click OK to close the Alignment tab dialog box.
  14. Type the information you want right-aligned in the header or footer.
  15. Close the header or footer area by clicking in the main document.

If you have non-printing characters visible on your screen, you'll notice that Word displays the alignment tab using the familiar arrow character it normally uses for tabs. While alignment tabs, in this respect, look like regular tabs, they are very different. Regular tabs are set at a particular distance from the left margin, while alignment tabs are set at a relative position (left, center, or right) to both margins. This means that if you later make a formatting change that adjusts those margins (such as Patsy did), change paper size, or even change from portrait to landscape orientation, the alignment tabs adjust the information that follows them relative to the margin change. This is very powerful!

I noted that if you have non-printing characters visible then alignment tabs look like regular tabs. If you need (for some reason) to determine whether a tab character is a normal tab or an alignment tab, one way to do so is to try deleting it. Position the insertion point just to the left of the tab character and press the Delete key. If the tab disappears, then it was a regular tab. If the symbol for the tab character (the arrow) is, instead, simply selected, then that is an alignment tab.

Since alignment tabs were introduced in Word 2007, they are only viable in documents saved in the DOCX or DOCM formats (or templates saved in the newer file format). If you are working on a document using the older DOC file format or you are working in compatibility mode, then alignment tabs have no efficacy—they are treated as regular tabs.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (13426) 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 seven less than 7?

2020-07-14 13:14:01


Thank you. I have been a fan of your tips for years. Whenever I look up a thorny Word problem on the web... you are there and usually first. This tip helped me vertically align a graphic that contained text (a logo) on the left side of the header with a piece of typed text on the right. Because the two elements were widely separated it was hard to eyeball. Because Word doesn't put gridlines into headers and footers, I thought I was sunk. Then I found this gem. I used the center alignment tab and when I made one slight change to the instructions above and temporarily displayed a dot leader, I could see where I needed to vertically position the graphic so it seemed to be on the same "dotted line" as the text. Nice!

2020-04-16 18:57:44


I normally use word 97-03

When i save and re-open, the alignment tabs have reverted back to normal. Word prompts me when checking compatibility and lets me know that Alignment tabs are not compatible with older versions of word and to save the document with a newer file type.

This would be all fine and good, however, no matter what version i try to save the document as, i get the same message. I have tried .docx and also macro enabled version, just for fun.

Thoughts on why i can't use this feater in word 2016? (office 365)



2018-02-13 10:40:24


@Frustrated Frog: you din't follow the instructions. Position Group is not dialog box, but GROUP on DESIGN tab for Header/Footer on your ribbon in your Word > 2007. In this group there is an Insert Alignment Tab button, which consequently opens the Alignment Tab dialog box, as Allen describes.

2017-03-03 13:15:46

Frustrated Frog

Utterly useless. Under the Design tab there was no Position Group dialogue box, so I abandoned the tutorial.

2016-01-31 10:28:37


Grace: You need to make sure that you activated the header or footer area, as described in step 1. If you don’t do that, you won’t see the Design tab — it is only visible when working in the header or footer.


2016-01-30 22:43:29

Grace Michael

Disregard the e-mail I just sent. I found the answer on Yahoo and I found the Design tab, Position Group, and Align Tab. I'm sorry for the mix-up.

2016-01-30 22:40:45

Grace Michael

I can't find the Design Tab. I checked Word's help files, did several searches on the web ... I learned there is a Design option in the Developer Tab, but I can't find a Design Tab, Align Tab, or Position Group you refer to.

2016-01-30 10:47:21

Pam Caswell

Thanks for the tip about telling alignment tabs from regular tabs. It's really good to know when troubleshooting.

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