Whole Document Reformatted

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Formatting applied to one paragraph affects the entire document

If you are a user of Word 2002 or above, you may have had this experience: you click in a single paragraph or select several paragraphs and apply italics, bullets, numbering, or some other type of direct formatting and the entire document (or at least more paragraphs than you had selected) becomes italic, bulleted, numbered, etc. What’s going on here?

There are two possible explanations for this issue.

  1. The simplest is that what you think is a single paragraph is actually only part of a paragraph. Sometimes text pasted from the Web will have two line breaks instead of a paragraph break, with the result that a large chunk of text that looks like several paragraphs is really only one. This is easily diagnosed by turning on the display of nonprinting characters to see whether you’re dealing with line breaks rather than paragraph breaks. If so, you just need to change them.

  2. The style is updating automatically. A quick test is that, if you press Ctrl+Z or click on the Undo button, the change is reversed for all but the originally selected text. That is the problem discussed in this article.

The problem

If you look at the Undo list before pressing the button (by clicking the arrow beside it), you’ll see that the last recorded action is “Update Style.” Some styles in Word are set to update automatically. This means that if you change the formatting of one paragraph in the style, you change the style itself, and the change is applied to all other paragraphs in that style. This behavior is the default for TOC styles (the ones used for entries in a table of contents), and in that case it is very convenient because the TOC styles can be rather difficult to modify otherwise.

Automatic updating can be helpful. For example, when you are creating a template and fine-tuning the styles, you may want them to update automatically so that you can immediately see the results of your experimentation with different formatting (once you’ve settled on the desired formatting for a style, you’ll disable automatic updating). And if you use appropriate styles for varying types of paragraphs, this behavior will not get out of hand. But if you use Normal style for most of your paragraphs and apply direct formatting to change the appearance of specific paragraphs, you absolutely don’t want Normal style behaving this way, yet many users of Word 2002 and above do experience this.

It’s not entirely clear how the Normal style becomes set to “Automatically update,” but this seems to happen far more frequently in Word 2002 and above than in previous versions, and it seems likely that this problem, like many others in Word, is caused by a poorly written add‑in.

How to correct it

As stated above, if you click Undo, “Update Style” will be undone, leaving the formatting applied to just the text you meant to format. But this does not solve the underlying problem. To do that, you need to modify the Normal style directly.

In Word 2000 and earlier

  1. Go to Format | Style and select the style that is misbehaving (it will already be selected if the insertion point is in a paragraph in that style).

  2. Click the Modify button. The display will be similar to the Modify Style dialog shown below.

  3. In the Modify Style dialog, clear the check box for “Automatically update.”

  4. Check the box for “Add to template.”

  5. Click OK, then Close to close the dialog.

In Word 2002 and 2003

  1. If it is not already displayed, display the Styles and Formatting task pane (using the toolbar button or Format | Styles and Formatting).

  2. Select the style you’re using (presumably Normal) in the task pane and click on the down arrow to display the menu.

  3. Choose Modify.

  4. In the Modify Style dialog, clear the check box for “Automatically update.”

  1. Check the box for “Add to template.”

  2. Click OK to close the dialog.

In Word 2007 and above

Solving the problem is a bit more problematic in Word 2007 and above because the Modify Style dialog for the Normal style does not include the “Automatically update” check box. Consequently, if the Normal style acquires the “Automatically update” property, it can be reversed only with a macro, as follows:

  1. Press Alt+F11 to display the Visual Basic Editor. Press Ctrl+G to show the Immediate Window.

  2. Type (or paste):

    ActiveDocument.Styles(wdStyleNormal).AutomaticallyUpdate = False

  3. Press Enter, and save the document.

If the issue arises with a style other than Normal, it can be dealt with in the same manner as in previous versions. In the Styles group on the Home tab, click the dialog launcher (arrow in the bottom right corner) to open the Styles pane. Select the misbehaving style, click on the arrow to open the menu, choose Modify, and proceed as instructed above for other versions.

Existing documents

Note that checking the “Add to template” box will ensure that new documents you create will not have the given style set to update automatically, but the style will not be changed in existing documents. You will have to repeat the steps above (except for “Add to template”) in existing documents that are affected.

This article copyright © 2003, 2017, 2018 by Suzanne S. Barnhill.