Gone are the days of going through a long document, locating all the instances of a word or phrase, and changing them manually to what you want. Microsoft Word’s ‘Find and Replace’ tool has been life changing for working with long documents. It allows you to make ‘global’ changes to a document, whether that’s fixing an error, updating text or replacing template prompts with real data. The tool also lets you make more subtle changes, but that can produce unexpected results. So we’ll walk through these to help you avoid common traps.

How to use ‘Find and Replace’ in Word

You’re no doubt familiar with Word’s ‘Find and Replace’ feature. It’s easily opened using CTRL + H (Command + H on the Mac), and comes up with a couple of simple boxes where you specify what you want to find and what you want to replace it with.

So far, so easy. But once you click on the ‘More’ button, things get a little more complicated.

I made use of these additional options during a recent project. Here, I’ll take you through how some of these extra options can fine-tune your ‘find and replace’ activity to achieve the outcome you need.

Replace an abbreviation with a full term, avoiding capitalisation chaos

Suppose the client has put the term ‘United Nations’ as ‘UN’ throughout the document and part of your editing work is to change the abbreviation to full text. You type ‘UN’ into ‘Find what’ and ‘United Nations’ into ‘Replace with’, then you click on ‘Replace all’. Two things can go wrong with this basic approach:

  • words such as ‘under’ turn into ‘united nationsder’ – this happens because Word is finding every instance of ‘UN’ or ‘un’, whether it's capped or lowercase and whether it's a single term or part of a larger word
  • every instance of ‘UN’ becomes ‘UNITED NATIONS’, even though you typed ‘United Nations’ into the ‘Replace with’ box – this happens where the ‘UPPERCASE’ setting has been applied to the abbreviation, that same setting gets applied to the replacement text.

Happily, when things go wrong in this way, you can simply click ‘Undo’ to reverse all the changes that you made using ‘Replace all’.

To get the result you want – whereby Word finds only the abbreviation ‘UN’ and changes it to ‘United Nations’ – you need to:

  1. Click ‘More’
  2. Tick the ‘Match case’ box.

When you do this, the words ‘Match case’ will appear under the ‘Find what’ box, but they actually apply to both the find and the replace settings.

Italicising a single letter using MS Word ‘Find and Replace’

Suppose you are editing a technical document where ‘P’ (capital, italic) represents probability. The client has used that correct term in some places, but has also used p, p and P. How can you easily find all these variants and convert them to P?

If you simply find ‘p’ and replace with ‘P’ using ‘Match case’, random capitals will appear in all the words with a p in them (e.g. suPress)! The solution is to use the ‘Find whole words only’ setting, and to work in two stages:

  1. Change all the instances of lowercase p to capital P. To do this using Find and Replace:
    1. Type ‘p’ into ‘Find what’
    2. Type ‘P’ into ‘Replace with’
    3. Click ‘More’
    4. Tick ‘Match case’ and ‘Find whole words only’ (as shown below)
    5. Click 'Replace all'
  2. Once you have capped all the instances of ‘P’, you need to change all the instances of roman P to italic P. To do this:
    1. Type P into ‘Find what’ and P into ‘Replace with’, making sure that ‘Find whole words only’ is ticked (you don’t need to tick ‘Match case’ this time as you have already capitalised all the Ps)
    2. Select the P in the ‘Replace with’ box and click CTRL + I to apply italic font
    3. Click 'Replace all'

This approach works even where the P is directly followed by a symbol (e.g. P=, P> or P<), Word still sees these instances of P as whole words.

The humble ‘Find and Replace’ tool in MS Word can be used in different ways to help you revise or update long documents quickly and easily. There are a couple of quirks that might crop up, though. You can avoid or resolve these by using the additional options under ‘More’ in the ‘Find and Replace’ window. And don’t forget you can ‘Undo’ and try again with more refinements if you didn’t quite get the desired outcome the first time round.

If you're keen to learn more about tools to help you save time and improve the quality of your editing, you might like to take a look at my courses in PerfectIt and EndNote. You can also book a coaching call with me to hone your EndNote skills.