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Typing Tab in a Table Cell

Here’s a little quickie… something that I thought had been covered in a previous blog post, but apparently not! How on earth are you supposed to type a tab in a table cell? After all, when you press tab in a table cell, the cursor jumps to the next cell. (Or, if you’re in the last cell in a table, InDesign inserts a whole new row.)

(Why on earth you’d want to insert a tab into a cell so has also been discussed before, but suffice it to say that sometimes people want a tab inside a cell. And it’s not immediately obvious how to do it in InDesign.)

Fortunately, Anne-Marie answered this conundrum a year and half ago, but I see that it’s hiding inside a comment at the end of another (excellent) blog post. Here’s what she said (with a few small edits for clarity, as I’ve taken this out of context):

On the Mac, you can just press Option-Tab to insert a tab inside a table cell.
On a PC, Alt-Tab is reserved for flipping through your open programs. However, you can choose Type > Insert Special Character > Other > Tab. Or, instead, just go to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts and assign a keyboard shortcut to it. It’s listed under the Type Menu product area; look for Insert Special Character:Other:Tab. You’ll see that “Tab” is already set as the default keyboard shortcut for this, but only while in a Text frame (it says “Context: Text”). If you choose “Table” from the Context pop-up menu, you can add another keyboard shortcut for this command. I use Control-Tab. In other words, when I want to add a tab inside a cell in Windows, I press Control-Tab. Works great.

So that’s it! Option-tab on the Mac; make your own keyboard shortcut for it on the PC.

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at
David Blatner

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45 Comments on “Typing Tab in a Table Cell

  1. That’s a lot easier than the way I was doing it (cutting/pasting a tab from a regular text frame). Thanks for the tip!

      • Hi Laura-

        The Mac app switching shortcut is Command+Tab. Maybe you changed it to Option-Tab so it’s overriding the way it works in tables?

  2. I’d be interested to hear how people use tabs characters in table cells in real life. (In the earlier discussion, David convinced me that there are good reasons to do so.)

    I still think it’s a bit like inserting a table on a sacred burial ground — an invitation to poltergeists!

    • My client wants a table with a dotted line after a question for a survey/form.
      This post was VERY HELPFUL!!! Thanks

  3. Interestingly, I just finished doing some training where an experienced InDesign user asked me how to insert a tab in a table cell (in Windows). I told him everything above, but then I asked him why he needed to do so in the first place.

    He said because in some cells he wanted to add bulleted lists. When I suggested autobullets, he said he needed to use an anchored graphic instead of a bullet, so doing the paste/tab/type routine was easier than autobullets/convert to text/find/change.

    So there you go.

  4. There are 2 reasons I use tabs in Cells on a regular basis.
    1. To align decimals (right alignment will not give a true alignment).
    2. When inserting a manual line break in a justified left text frame, the line where the break is inserted will fully justify unless you insert a tab character before the line break.

  5. Yeah, I’m mostly just being silly — I accept that there are good reasons for putting tab characters in table cells, although I do have the slightly more serious purpose of just getting people to discuss it a bit more…

    You have the contents of a single cell both right-aligned AND aligning on a decimal point (or similar character)? — To me that sounds like a good reason to have two cells instead of just one, possibly with no stroke on the line between them.

    The fully justified line that ends in a manual line break is a problem, I accept, although stylistically I think I would always avoid having justified text inside a table cell.

  6. Jeremy

    Sometimes you need to align text within a cell and sometimes it’s easier to use tabs than using indents.

    Sometimes you can align the text using two cells or splitting the cells but sometimes in complex tables it makes it impossible to move cell width to accomodate the text. So a tab works better this way.

  7. ……….
    David Eisenberg said:
    There are 2 reasons I use tabs in Cells on a regular basis.
    1. To align decimals (right alignment will not give a true alignment).

    If you have a column of numbers and you want to align them on the decimal:
    1. Highlight the entire column
    2. Set alignment to “Align LEFT”
    3. Open the Tabs panel (shift-ctrl-T) and set an “align to decimal” tab stop where you want the decimal to be

    Now as you start to type in one of those cells, your digits will right align to your tab stop until you insert a decimal point, then they will begin left aligning.

    This is assuming of course that your column is dedicated to holding a list of numbers.

  8. “Sometimes you need to align text within a cell and sometimes it?s easier to use tabs than using indents.”

    But since a table cell behaves as if it already has an invisible tab character inside, why not just set a tab stop without the tab character?

  9. Eeek – apologies for the length of the comment:

    Basically I see 3 very good ways to indent text and for different situations and I’d say a good example would be where you’d have something like this –

    Ok not in order but the way I’d do it would be

    1: Using a first line indent and negative indent to align the text. This is fine to do and can be accomplished by making a new paragraph style for the text based on the style of the body in the table. So it requires a new paragraph style in an already busy busy publication with many styles.

    2: Use bullets and numbering to align and to make the bullets – very flexible way indeed but again requires perhaps the creation of a new paragraph style based on the body of the table. It also requires perhaps another style on top of that for sub bullets.

    3: To use a tab and a indent to here character for text that spills over to the next line. I find this method flexible for many reasons in these circumstances. Mainly because the style for the body could have built in tab stops at say every 2mm or so. So that when insert a tab the text is always even in steps, important for sub bullets etc.

    Why do I need to go about creating new paragraph styles for sub bullets in a table, when I can build tabs into just one style of the Table Body text where I know the increments will always be 1mm or 2mm or whatever I set in the Tabs pallete.

    This is also important when you want consistent look and feel across all your text, whether it’s numbered, bullets or just indenting text to be a sub level of the body. Because when it comes to that particular table I posted an image of – it’s on a SRA1 sheet with about 20 other tables, all different sizes, shapes etc. So not only would I need to create subparagraph sytles for all the subheadings or subbullets, but I’d have to create one for each table because the cell widths vary and other reasons.

    And some of the text requires a larger indent than other, so it requires two tabs before the text. I don’t usually like using two or three tabs before text, but sometimes I have to in tables that I need to be consistent.

    These are very special circumstances that I wouldn’t build paragraph styles for text. I usually do, I’m usually very good at using styles and using them right.

    But I have to say, having body text with tabs built in at every 2mm works well for these tables that I did. Simply because the next person that has to use the table to update it doesn’t have to fiddle around with the styles. There is one style controlling the indents for all the subheads and bullets. And I wasn’t going to make a bunch of table paragraph styles that would be difficult for another user to get around in.

    For these particular tables – using tabs was a great solution rather than setting indents, setting up bullet styles etc. Because had I had to move an indent for the text to fit the text in a cell then that’s in a paragraph style and the paragraph override symbol comes on. Anyone coming in to use the document might hit the override button and then all the indents are gone that were manually set up.

    Whereas with the tabs they are at a predetermined location set in increments of 2mm in the Table Body style.

  10. THANK YOU! I’ve been wondering how to do this for ages and it finally became an absolute necessity today – and i found this! So thank you very much.

    And as for why i would need to insert a tab in a table – the company i am working for has footnotes at the bottom of tables, often numbered, and sometimes lengthy. I needed to tab these. Yes i could just insert a new text box below the table, but i wanted it in one nice neat table that could be easily and quickly copied and pasted between documents.

    So there you go :)

  11. I build annual reports on a very regular basis. I find TABs to be indispensable. All my dollar signs always line up perfectly. My last tab stop gets set to align on a “)”, this causes the closing bracket of negative values to hang over to the right by one character. By putting a little thought to tab stop definitions I’m able to do it all with one paragraph style.

  12. An “option-tab” is just a regular tab character, so you can search for it with Find/Change (type ^t). If you need to limit it to that character inside a table, you’d have to select the table and then limit the scope to “Selection” in the find/change dialog box.

  13. I’ve searched high and low on this forum for an answer to the alignment of decimals in a table column, the solution to my issue seems close but I’ve yet to find the definitive answer. I’ve tried all the very good suggestions such as aligning to a tab character, a comma in my case, also using [Tabular Lining] and changing the kerning to metrics, and yes my type is left aligned.
    My tables are for Annual Reports where a single column may have small and large numbers and some with brackets and some numbers in bold ie 10,163,090 (1,663,356) 30,250 the font I have to use is Unica (not a nice font). The main issue seems to be when you have multiple decimal places the align to character only works for the first comma.
    If align to character is not the answer, should I actually use tabs in the cells and tab between the decimals, hope not as it seems like a lot of work. The data supplied to us comes from Excel and my client sees everything aligned in Excel and wants to know why I can’t recreate the same. Any suggestions would be appreciated

  14. Michael: the align-to-decimal function is meant to align fractions, so 1.23 will be aligned with 10,254.1. Your decimal comma separators ought to be aligned automatically, even when the number has no period and/or fractional value — on regular numbers it will behave the same as Align Right, and any parentheses will be ignored — the last digit in your number will be used.
    So don’t change the Align To character to comma but leave it as a period.

    • I’m using FRAMEMAKER and NEED info on setting up my “-52” numbers and “53/4” numbers all in the same column. Well I know how to set up the decimal align; however, it is getting the tab at the beginning of my number entry. If I enter the tab in the ParaTag option for “Autonumber Format” it doesn’t work UNLESS I actually placed text or something BEFORE the tab entry. I don’t understand nor do I know who to find that can help (even Adobe site hits on EVERYTHING else but how to get the tab at the very beginning of the cell WITHOUT having to enter a manual tab in each and every cell…..thats a BUNCH of time and energy). HELP ME PLEASE

      • Select “Tab” key and “Esc” together! I need to use this all the time building Parts Lists, aligning the “Figure&Index/SheetNo.” column and then the “Description” column needs leader dots at the end of each entry! They make it soooooooo hard sometime!!!

        Good luck to you!

  15. Thank you so much. I searched the InDesign help library and couldn’t find the answer. You have made my life sooooooooooo much easier. THANK YOU.

  16. I use tabs inside of table cells for doing sports team calendars. Inside each cell is the date, the opponent and the time. If I didn’t have tabs in there, it would be a nightmare!

  17. Ya, I use tab in tables for menu design. I need to quickly adjust row height and still have dots in between food title & price.

  18. Thanks for this! I have been so frustrated by this little conundrum. When doing annual reports it’s essential to be able to tab within a cell.

    Thanks guys!

  19. Please explain, why the “how to” part of this post needs to be buried in your blah-di-blah about why you’re writing this?

  20. I am afraid I want to a right align tab in my tables – so easy to do on q PC!. When I set a right align tab on the right of my column it does not right align. This is driving me crazy. How can I achieve this please? Nothing in the Help area helps this at all.

    • Carolyn: You can do this by choosing Type > Insert Special Characters > Other > Right Indent Tab. If you need to do this a lot, set it up as a keyboard shortcut (see the article at the top for details)

  21. Thank You Very Much David. Sometimes you can look just everywhere and not find something. But getting the answer from someone whose online profile u dig makes the hassle heaps easier. Don’t stop what u r doing pls.

  22. Have you ever noticed that you can allign decimals in tables without inserting any tab character? I just found this feature and I am amazed. You just need to left-alling your numbers (the only condition) and set the decimal tab wherever you want. Number would jump on their decimal (or any other character) without any additional effort.

  23. “Why on earth you’d want to insert a tab into a cell…”

    No, the RIGHT question would be WHY ON EARTH is something as simple as typing a tab inside a cell an indesign SECRET????

    Why do we have to google it to find out??

    I wish this program would take a new direction towards sucking a little less but I’m afarid it will be the opposite

  24. Ok…but I want to to place 3 tabs in a cell with leaders for each one…how do I accomplish that?!! Option-Tab will tab text over the default amount, but I want a line after each for info and a signature, i.e. “Date:” and a line for someone to write it in; “Time:” and a line for someone to write it in, and “Signature:” and a line for someone to write it in, all in one cell.

    • You can actually edit the behavior of the Tab key in the Keyboard Shortcut editor. I changed it to always insert a Tab (… and so now I cannot use it anymore to move from column to column. You win some, you lose some).

      (I also modified the ‘U’ and ‘J’ keys to immediately Unmerge and Join cells, which works great, except that I have to be careful when entering text.)

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