Selecting With the Magic Box

Here's a handy trick to kick off your weekend.

You've got a few columns of text in a Word document, separated by tabs. 
They're not in a table.

Now, you want to format just one of the columns without impacting the text in
any of the other ones.  Think you have to manually select and format every
word in the column manually?  Not so!

Simply hold down the Alt key and drag a box around the text you want to
format.  Let go of the Alt key and all of the text within the box is
selected!  Apply formatting until your heart is content.  Or, perhaps
click Copy to put the selected text on the clipboard.

Use ALT+Drag to select a box of text in Word

The same trick works in the Visual Studio text editor as well... on a monospaced
file it can sometimes work miracles!  You'll find that this works in all
modern versions of Word.

By the way, the selected text is blue instead of black in the picture above
because I used Word 12 to grab the screenshot.  Unlike previous versions of
Word which used a simple inversion of the background and text colors to show
selection, Word 12 uses a lightened version of the Windows selection color.

Comments (20)
  1. pcooper says:

    I’ve seen the feature before, but couldn’t ever think of when it’d be useful. I’m a big fan of tables in Word, so I’d probably have just used the text-to-table conversion to make a table and continue formatting from there.

    But it does freak people out to see half of a character highlighted. That’s kinda fun.

  2. Mike says:

    I remeber using this a *lot* in the original version of Word for Windows through school. It vanished in subsequent releases until pretty recently.

  3. SteveA says:

    Cool. If I can remember it for next time I will use it, would have been useful in the past for sure.

    However the challenge is how do you find these little tips. "Tip of the day type" feature can be most annoying, looking in help is ok if you know what you are looking for and find it quickly, otherwise almost impossible.

  4. Can’t think of its usefulness!? OMG, I use this at least once a week in Word when editing documentation. Even moreso, I use it in Visual Studio on nearly a daily basis. Most people don’t see the purpose of the feature, but once you know about it and start using it, you’ll fall in love with it, too. Trust me.

    On a side note, Notepad2 has the same capability, but it lets you select regions by using the keyboard arrows. VS needs that.

  5. A shame about dropping the selection-inversion feature. My mom always uses it, along with all sorts of optical illusions, when teaching her class about light, optics, eyesight and vision.

  6. Ryan says:

    I use this feature all the time in DevStudio. In VC6 it is bound to the key stroke Ctrl+Shift+F8 (I think I accidentally found it when trying to clear a breakpoint with Ctrl+Shift+F9). I like haveing it accessable from the keyboard, but haven’t found a command to bind to in VisualStudio 2003 or 2005.

  7. Ryan says:

    Michael Flanakin wrote:

    > On a side note, Notepad2 has the same

    > capability, but it lets you select regions

    > by using the keyboard arrows. VS needs that.

    VS does let you use the keyboard after you initiate the selection with the mouse.

  8. Ryan says:

    I was just playing with it again and I don’t know why I have missed this for so long, but Alt+Shift+Arrow will start the block selection in VS. It even makes sense. If you only go down it will select the entire line, but as soon as you hit a left or a right it will select a block. I feel dumb for missing it for so long, but if you don’t advertize your features… I think this one deserves a spot of it’s own in the statusbar saying "you can hit Alt+Shift+Arrow to do a block selection.

  9. jensenh says:

    Steve actually has a really interesting point.

    Many people profess to not like "tip of the day" features. And it would really take a thorough reading of documentation to stumble on a feature like this.

    Yet, every time I write a about a little trick like this, it gets replicated and reproduced all over the web like wildfire, indicating that a large number of people 1) find it useful/interesting and 2) don’t know about it.

    This seems to indicate that there is a hole to be filled–it would be interesting to think about how to fill it.

    Office 12 deals with this a little bit with Super Tooltips, but that can’t work for a feature like ALT selection. Nor can it for scenarios that span multiple features.

  10. CS says:

    I also use this fature a lot. But one problem I often face is that if you try to use it in a table cell the "lookup"-bar (in german "nachschlagen" ) comes up instead (which gets really annoying after a while and some unsuccessful attempts).

    A little comment on this "lookup"-feature: I kind of like and repeatedly use it, but does it really have to come up when I press ALT and click on a word or text?

  11. Trev says:

    I like the feature and it could have helped me a lot in the past. I have also come across another helpful feature that I am sure most already know about (I am usually the last).

    If you want to highlight a certain amount of text, just click on the place you wish the highlight to end. Now hold the Shift key down and click where you want it to start.

  12. Hanford says:

    Jensen wrote:

    "You’ll find that this works in all modern versions of Word."

    I believe that it used to be CTRL + dragging in earlier Word versions. I seem to remember using it in Word running Windows 3.11 For Workgroups.

  13. Dovydas says:

    I know about this feature at least 8 years. What is so special new about Office 12?

  14. jensenh says:


    I didn’t say this had anything to do with Office 12. In fact I explicitly said "You’ll find that this works in all modern versions of Word."

    It’s just a tip to help people get more out of the Office version they have.

  15. Wow. That’s even cooler than Shift+F3 trick which gave me "The MS Office Genius" fame once. ;]


  16. PatriotB says:

    "Word 12 uses a lightened version of the Windows selection color."

    Ok, I’m guessing the reason that you "lighten" it is so that you can leave the color of the text itself the same (e.g. so that the user can still see the colors if they selected text of different colors).

    Hopefully it works okay with high contrast color schemes…

  17. Stevebri says:

    Actually in WFW 1.0 you just clicked and dragged with second mouse button. When Word 6 added contextual menus it was moved to Alt Click

  18. A
    couple of weeks ago, I wrote about holding down the Alt key while selecting
    text in Word to draw…

  19. Trevin says:

    This is a great tip.. I’ve been a word users for as long as I can remember and the power tips still manage to come out of the woodwork!

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