If you’re writing papers, it’s likely you need to know how to do a first line indent for every new paragraph. If you’re citing papers, you’ll need to know how to do what’s called a hanging indent.

Microsoft Office’s Word gives us easy ways to both indent and hanging indent our work. But what’s the difference between the two?

A first line indent in a paragraph is exactly that–when you indent the first line of each paragraph, and the first line only, by 1/2″. There are two good ways to accomplish this, and one bad way. A hanging indent occurs when the first line is flush left, and all subsequent lines are indented 1/2″. (Trust me, this will make sense soon. I brought visual aids.)

The easiest way to create a first line indent is to, drumroll please, hit the tab key! Woo, tab key! Once, just once, mind you, as Word’s default is that each time you hit it you’ll indent another 1/2″.

If you do that, you may notice that on the next paragraph, Word has indented for you. Yay Word; thanks!

Word has tried to become more clever about anticipating your needs, so it will automatically set your paragraph first line indent to 1/2″ after you do it once, manually. However, you can also set your paragraph first line indent in the same way Word will, by using the margin and indent sliders on the ruler.

The what? The ruler. Here–let me show you how to turn it on for a Mac:

Word Ruler

Go to View, look down the list of options, and put a check mark next to Ruler. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to try an indent. Open up a blank Word document. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Got one? Good. Now, I want you to look at your ruler. There are weird little blue tabby-looking things on the top and bottom of the ruler, both on the left and the right. These tabs are the indent markers, and correspond roughly to the manual tab stops that used to be on typewriters. They function in a similar fashion here, in that you can click and drag on them and move them to where you want the indent in your document.

Paragraph indentIn this document, I have clicked and dragged the top indent marker only, 1/2″ in, and then begun typing. This created a first line indent. My paragraph is automatically indented, and I do not have to worry about indenting any subsequent paragraphs. Which is handy when you’re pulling an all-nighter and are afraid you may actually forget how to breathe at some point.

Please note: I only moved the top indent marker. If I moved the bottom indent marker too, something different would occur…

…and that something is a hanging indent! Let’s say I’m typing MLA formatted citations. These citations need to have a 1/2″ hanging indent. This is where you’ll really want to use the indent markers, because there is no nice way to do this manually using the tab key. You can do it, but it gets ugly, and then people cry, and it’s not fun. Try it my way, instead. Open up another blank document, and touching only the pointy part of the bottom indent marker, slowly move it 1/2″ over until it looks like below, then type:

Hanging Indent

Okay, at this point, one of a two things has probably happened:

  • Both indent markers moved over even though you didn’t want them to, and you want to set fire to everything with your mind, or;
  • Everything is perfect and you think that I’m a genius.

If the first thing occurred, it’s because your mouse was over the little blobby thing that the bottom pointy blue indent marker is sitting on, and you dragged that by accident. Please, don’t feel bad–it’s hard to grab the right part of the hanging indent marker. That’s why I made such a big, italicized deal about where to click. Drag it back over to where it started, and try again.

If the second thing occurred, you GO, you little hanging-indent smarty-pants, you!

Some handy tips:
  • You can apply automatic indenting to material that has already been typed. Highlight the text you want to apply the changes to, then scootch the indent markers around to your liking.
  • Can’t remember which indent marker moves the first line indent and which moves the hanging indent settings? Easy: the one on top of the ruler moves the top (first line) of the paragraph. The one on the bottom of the ruler moves the bottom lines of the paragraph.
Wait, you said there was a bad way of indenting. What was that?

Once upon a time, typewriters had things called non-proportional fonts. Every keystroke took up the same amount of space, so type actually looked, well, a little nasty sometimes. (That’s where the that whole “put two spaces after a period” came from–it was for weirdly spaced fonts.) Now, however, we have lovely fonts that are proportional, meaning that each letter takes up the amount of space it needs to look nice next to the letters around it. That’s actually very clever, but it means that the space key no longer makes a space of a set size. Instead, it makes spaces the size needed to look nice next to the next letters. Therefore, you cannot make a nice, even indent by using the space key. It will change every single time, and look “ragged.” So don’t do it–if you want to type your indents, hit the tab key once–never space.

 


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