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Tab Leaders (Part 1): Separating Columns of Text with Dots

Way back in Podcast 25 listeners asked questions about underlining text and creating tab leaders. After hearing the same questions recently from colleagues, I thought the topic was worth revisiting.

Vanessa from Australia asked:

I have a name, address, and a company name. I want to follow each one of those with a dotted underline that goes all the way to the right edge of the box. How do I do that?

The dotted underlines you reference, Vanessa, are called a tab leaders (pronounced leedurz). Tab leaders can be dots, dashes, underscores, and even decorative glyphs from fonts other than those used in surrounding text. I’ll cover the last option in a future edition of this series of posts. For now, let’s create standard dot leaders.

  1. Begin by setting your text in tab-separated columns (see Figure 1). Use a single tab no matter how misaligned the results appear for the moment. The tab, represented by a double brace (>>) when Show Hidden Characters is enabled from the bottom of the Type menu, will become the dot leader.

Figure 1: Shows two irregular columns of text separated by tabs.

  1. Highlight all the lines of text that require a dot leader and open the Tab Ruler. In InDesign CS2 and earlier select Window > Type & Tables > Tabs; in InDesign CS3, choose Tabs from the Type menu. You can also open the Tabs ruler from any version with the CMD+SHIFT+T/CTRL+SHIFT+T keyboard shortcut.
  2. When the Tab Ruler appears, it will automatically size itself to the width of your highlighted text column. Select the appropriate tabstop alignment character–in this case you probably want the Right-Justified Tab marker, which is the third arrow at the top of the Tabs panel (the arrow has a tail pointing left). With the Right-Justified Tab button active, click in the blank area immediately above the ruler, as far right as you can without passing the big arrow (the right indent indicator) there. Any text after the tab should automatically jump to line up along the right edge of the text frame (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Shows the same text with the right column now aligned to the right of the text frame.

  1. With your columnar text separated and aligned, the only thing left to do is add the leader. First, reselect the tabstop by clicking on the marker arrow above the ruler in the Tabs panel. When you have it selected, you’ll notice that the X field along the top of the Tabs panel shows the marker’s position. (If you accidentally add another marker instead of selecting the first, just drag the extra marker down into the ruler itself; it will then disappear.)
  2. Beside the X position field is the Leader field. Enter a single period in that field and press TAB on your keyboard to leave the field. The result should be what you see in Figure 3. Close the Tabs panel.

Figure 3: Shows Tabs ruler panel above two columns of text now separated by a dot leader.

If you’d rather a different kind of leader, say dashes or a solid line instead of dots, put something other than a period in the Leader field. An em dash will create a solid horizontal line at the midpoint of the text’s x-height (vertically halfway up lowercase characters), and an underscore (_) will create a solid baseline rule between the left and right columns. You put in the Leader field any character you want. In fact, it can be more than a single glyph! The Leader field accepts input of up to 8 glyphs. For example, to create a very loose dot leader, insert space period space, or get really creative with something like period space period period space period period period. Whatever you enter in the Leader field will be repeated as many times as necessary to fill the space between columns.

In my next installment in the “Tab Leaders” series, I’ll explain how to change formatting options specific to tab leaders so that you can create leaders that are different colors, sizes, or even completely different typefaces.

Pariah S. Burke

Pariah S. Burke

Pariah S. Burke ( is a design and publishing workflow expert bringing creative efficiency into studios, agencies, and publications around the world as principal of Workflow: Creative ( He is the author of the first InDesign book written for experienced InDesign users, Mastering InDesign CS3 for Print Design and Production (Sybex, 2007), and other books on Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Creative Suite, and QuarkXPress; author of more than 250 published articles; the former trainer and technical lead for InDesign, InCopy, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat to Adobe?s own technical support team; a freelance graphic designer with 20 years experience; a WordPress evangelist; and the publisher of the Websites Quark VS (, Designorati (, Gurus Unleashed (, Workflow: Freelance (, and the Creatives Are Community and Toolbar ( When not traveling, Pariah lives in Portland, Oregon where he writes (a lot) and creates (many) projects and publications to empower, inform, and connect creative professionals.
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18 Comments on “Tab Leaders (Part 1): Separating Columns of Text with Dots

  1. Isn’t it better to use a right indent tab for this so that your text will automatically adjust should you need to change the column width? It will still pick up the leader of either the first tab past the right column or, if there isn’t one, the last tab within the column.

    Try it out. Change the tabs in the sample to right indent tabs and the leader will still be there.


  2. Dave, I agree; I like using Shift-Tab (or Type > Insert Special Character > Other > Right Indent Tab) for anything that goes to the right margin. On the other hand, if you want to make sure the leader goes only to a particular horizontal position, even if the text frame expands, then adding the tab stop makes sense.

  3. It is better to use a right indent tab, but only if you are using a leader once. Some times you may have several pieces of text tabbed that require a leader, so left aligning the text is very favourable and right aligning numbers is pleasant. A typical scenario for a lot of people is something like:


    Requiring a left indent with a tab leader and a right indent tab for the numbers.

    What’s interesting here is the leader is carried through for the right indent tab. Meaning that there is no need to insert another leader to create the (.) across the column.

    Whereas if I had used a right align tab instead of a Right Indent Tab I can control where the number stops without adjusting the measure of the column. As well as this, I can change what type of Leader I want for this particular Tab Stop, should I want to have two different leaders in the same column.

  4. I have found that an even better solution is to use different underline styles instead of the leader function. Just apply an underline to the tab character (or even better use nested styles) – and this way you have a lot more control over how your leader will look.

  5. Ok that’s freaky. I have no tabs, I inserted a flush space. Underlined it. Inserted a right indent tab and hey presto, I have a leader to the edge. How and why? Thanks Alexandre, that’s really good.

  6. Chris said:

    I have found that an even better solution is to use different underline styles instead of the leader function. Just apply an underline to the tab character (or even better use nested styles) – and this way you have a lot more control over how your leader will look.

    Yup, that’s next week’s installment.

    With this one, I taught the most basic means of achieving tab leaders in columnar text first (to establish a certain user comfort level). In the next installment I get a little more advanced, then a little more after that.

    “Tab Leaders” is a series of fairly beginner level posts in answer to reader questions InDesign Secrets has received.

    I just finished an advanced InDesign book (shameless plug: Mastering InDesign CS3 for Print Design and Production), began writing a new regular column in InDesign Magazine about workflow efficiency and InDesign productivity, migrated a newspaper from QuarkXPress and Word to InDesign and InCopy, and have written several intermediate to advanced InDesign, InCopy, and Illustrator articles. Oh! And I’m also developmental editing a title on scripting InDesign. I wanted a little break from the high-level stuff by writing a few posts here that were more beginner level.

  7. Mr. S. Burke wrote: ?Tab Leaders? is a series of fairly beginner level posts in answer to reader questions InDesign Secrets has received.”

    I was waiting till Part II to mention more advanced Tab Leaders. This was Part I and I didn’t want to spoil it :D

  8. You can use up to seven characters in CS2 for tab leaders, but typically a space plus a period makes it nicely spaced. Once back to the text tool, you format the leaders, as a block, just like text.

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