Control Your Text In Word

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about holding down the Alt key while selecting text in Word to draw a box around it.

I received a lot of mail thanking me for the tip, which was nice. But three of the mails had something in common—they asked me to pass along to the Word team a specific related feature request: discontiguous text selection (the ability to select multiple independent ranges of text at once.)

Well, good news, faithful readers. Not only do I think that it's a good suggestion for a feature in Word, it's actually so good that it's already in the product! Today, it's all about the Control key.

Start by selecting some text in Word. Now, hold down the Control key while you select other ranges of text. Voila, discontiguous text selection at your disposal. Any formatting you apply will work on the entire selected range. This can be really helpful for a situation like formatting the first sentence of a number of paragraphs the same way.

You can select multiple ranges of text at the same time

Another less-known use of the Control key is to make a quick copy of the selected text.

Try this: make a document in Word and select some text. If you drag the selection and drop it somewhere else in the document, it will move the text to where you dropped it. So far so good.

Now, hold down Control and drag/drop the text to different location in the document. Notice that this time, Word makes a copy of the selected text and puts it in the target destination. You can use this trick to quickly make a lot of copies of selected text. I don't use this feature often, but a couple of times it has come in very handy.

For the most amazing trick of all: once again, select a range of text. This time, hold down both Shift and Control and drag the text to a new location. Notice that it inserts what looks like a copy of your text. Now, make a change to the original text you selected—the copied text mirrors the changes you made!

In fact, by holding down Shift and Control, you've created a link. Any change you make to the original text is automagically updated in the linked text. (You can even use this trick to link automatically updating text between two documents!)

Congratulations, you're now an official expert in the ins and outs of Word text selection.

Comments (32)

  1. Brad Corbin says:

    Cool. I knew about the Control, but I didn’t know about the Shift AND Control combination. That’s pretty sweet!

  2. Jeff Parker says:

    Ohhh, thats cool, you know the alt thing also works in Visual Studio which is where I tried it and it made me very happy. But the control and shift keys do not work in VS 🙁 Ok feature request to the VS team. Cause this would be handy in VS as well.

  3. L Sanders says:

    The Alt tip was a great hint – although it doesn’t seem to work right when selecting a box and there are columns in part of the text.

    Is there a comprehensive list of such mouse/keyboard features anywhere?

  4. Hi,

    I knew about both "tricks" – mostly because the one involving alt has been copied by various text editors I’m using daily.

    What bothers me though is: How good is a feature if no-one knows about it? Shouldn’t there be another – non hidden – way to let the user know about this? Additionally, it can be confusing as hell if you hold Alt by accident.

    While this is a very nice feature, I guess it needs some work to be really useful, which is what this blog is about if I’m right 😉


  5. Fox Cutter says:

    Intereting, so it work the same as draging and droping does in Explorer. Ctrl copies and Shirt-Control creates a shortcut (A feature I didn’t know about). That’s neet.

  6. jensenh says:


    It’s a good point, but really all of these features are available via good old cut and paste. So I guess I’d argue this is about a faster, more efficient way of achieving the same effect.

    The question is, how do people learn that this kind of thing is possible? That is a tough question.

  7. Ben R. says:

    Fantastic…is there a single categorized list of Office keyboard shortcuts and tricks anywhere? If not, there really should be…

  8. Zian says:

    Thank you for the tip!

    I made so many links with Edit | Paste Special that my Office 2003 Edit menu only shows Paste Special. 🙂

  9. Centaur says:

    > What bothers me though is: How good is a feature if

    > no-one knows about it? Shouldn’t there be another –

    > non hidden – way to let the user know about this?

    I wonder if they teach kids to read the online help these days 😉

  10. Orion Adrian says:

    What you need is something that notifies you of what the various combinations of control, shift and alt keys will do when you’re dragging, dropping, selecting or clicking objects.

    May I suggest something that shows up in the corner of the screen that says what does what. This would go a long way towards discoverability. The mouse cursors simply don’t cut it.

    Preferably this should be done at the OS level so all applications could do it.

  11. jensenh says:


    I’m pretty sure the status bar also tells you what is going to happen, at least for the drag/drop cases.

    You could make a reasonable argument that it’s no better than nothing at all, but there you go. 🙂

    There’s a good story in Inmates Are Running The Asylum (or maybe in About Face?) about putting people through a usability test with a spreadsheet, where every few minutes the status bar changed to read "There’s $50 taped under the seat, take it!" No one ever noticed the message or took the money.

  12. Jeff Atwood says:

    > ot only do I think that it’s a good suggestion for a feature in Word, it’s actually so good that it’s already in the product!

    Hilarious! Wasn’t that one of the best talking points for Office 12 that 90 percent of the "feature requests" for Office were already in the product — but nobody could find them?

    Good times..

  13. abhinaba says:

    I used to develope a product called FrameMaker. That is full of these kinds of tricks. The product used to ship with a shortcut reference card which you can fold and keep beside/on the computer. I guess its time Word also did something similar

  14. jensenh says:

    In terms of general "how to use the keyboard in Word", the best resource I’m aware of is here:;en-us;290938

    We should try to do a better job of helping people learn the keyboard shortcuts if they want to.

  15. jensenh says:


    Not quite 90%, but it’s true that a lot of the things people ask to do with Office are already possible, but it’s hard to figure out where to look. That is a big part of the impetus to the Office 12 UI redesign.

  16. Centaur says:

    If they asked, it would be one thing. But they don’t ask *how* to do something they want, because it doesn’t even *occur* to them there is an easy way to do it. Most people immediately assume it is something that cannot be done automatically, and do it by hand.

    I do not know how to make features discoverable. Maybe 10% people have intrinsic skills to discover features, to leave no rock unturned on first run of a new program. Not necessarily learning to use every feature immediately; just subconsciously making notes and think later, “I want a table of contents; I’m sure I have seen a menu command that talked of TOCs, aha, here it is, how do I use it?” The other 90% think, “There is this area where I can type text; then, there is this bunch of things that make my text red, bold, Arial, and big; and then there is that scary bunch of words that I really don’t want to read now; and anyway, it is not possible to make a table of contents without knowing the headings, and no way is this dumb piece of metal going to tell headings from the rest of the text”.

    Maybe Office 12 will cause more people to find out what’s possible. More likely, they will just learn the absolute minimum again and go on with their suboptimal ways.

  17. John Waller says:

    >>>I used to develope a product called FrameMaker. That is full of these kinds of tricks. The product used to ship with a shortcut reference card which you can fold and keep beside/on the computer. I guess its time Word also did something similar

    Adobe used to include these cards for Photoshop and other software as well but they all got discontinued. I never read them though I had every intention of reading them "later" but never got around to it.

    To be useful, I think these references need to be on screen when you’re actually performing the operations.

    I just learn one or two shortcuts I find useful and make them part of my arsenal. I’m happy to live without the more esoteric ones such as the Alt key trick in Word.

    As Jensen says, they’re merely slightly faster ways of doing what cut-and-paste can already do. I don’t use them often enough to master them.

  18. josh says:

    "they’re merely slightly faster ways of doing what cut-and-paste can already do."

    I had to copy a number of tokens from visual studio to excel today. To use copy and paste, you have to click on the destination cell twice, without double clicking! Ctrl-dragging is MUCH faster than copy, click, wait, click, paste.

    (The first click doesn’t really have to be on the cell, but since you have to move the mouse there anyway…)

  19. Mat Hall says:

    "May I suggest something that shows up in the corner of the screen that says what does what?"

    You mean like, ooh, some sort of animated character that pops up with "helpful" tips while you work? 😛

  20. MJP says:

    Personally, I was thinking about Tip Of The Day. This was a nice idea but fails because the tips are poorly timed and poorly targetted.

    I wonder if there is a reliable signature to detect (accurately!) when the user has stopped working and started daydreaming (as distinct from thinking about work). That’s the time for a discreet message along the lines of "Bored? Why not learn some ways to spend less time doing this?"

    Even better if the system could monitor the user’s expertise level and pitch the help accordingly. You shouldn’t show the Ctrl+select tip if the user does it regularly.

  21. Jay Freedman says:

    I knew about the modifier keys (I suppose MVPs are expected to know such things from birth). I have some problems with them, though…

    Discontiguous selection has been in the program since Word 2002, but it has never been given any usable support in VBA ( As far as I know (and I did ask at the MVP Summit), there’s no plan to provide anything more in O12, either.

    The Alt modifier for selecting a region of text is too easily overridden by the Alt trigger for the Research task pane. Couldn’t one of these have been made Ctrl+Alt or some other modifier?

  22. Dave Wollrich says:

    Jay Freedman’s comment illustrates a flaw in some of the postings in this blog as well as others. He notes that this feature is available in XP and 2003; however, the original posting merely says it’s available. I realize that it may be a nuisance; however, it would be extremely helpful to the user if the context of the comment (that is, the version(s)) are specified.

  23. Klaus Linke says:

    Non-contiguous selections weren’t that useful up to now, but it seems that their usefulness was much improved in Word12:

    In Word2003 if you "highlighted" text in an Edit>Find, and then made another Find/Replace, the replacement was done on the whole text, not only the highlighted/selected text.

    In Word12, the replacement is only done on the non-contiguous selection of the previous "Find".

    That opens a lot of possibilities! Say, do a wildcard search for some pattern, and then a further replacement for certain text inside the matches, or a futher "Find" to hone down the selections.

  24. Mario Goebbels says:

    I just tried these things on Word XP at work, and interestingly they’re already working here. The things you don’t know…

  25. Klaus Linke says:

    Hi Mario,

    Somewhat, and sometimes, perhaps, but it used to be so buggy as to be unusable.

  26. Klaus Linke says:

    Oops… just tried in Word 2003, and it does seem to work, no matter how you do the multiple selection (manually with the Ctrl key, or with a previous "Find", or with "Select all instances" from the styles pane).

    The one time it seemed not to work was my fault: The dialog was set to "Search: All" instead of "Search: Down".

    Maybe I was doing something wrong, too, when testing it previously — Sorry!

  27. Chris_Pratley says:

    As the original program manager "owner" of discontiguous selection in Word2002, I’m glad to see this feature finally getting its due!

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