Power Tips for Using Word

This blog post was inspired by a Facebook post made by my friend (and colleague in the Boston University Certificate in Genealogy Program) Julie Michutka about styles in Microsoft Word. Even as a Mac user, I understand that Word provides a great deal of functionality that isn’t offered by other word processors, and is very useful for genealogical writing. Here are five tops to help you use Word smarter. Note: These options may not be available to those operating older versions of Word.


1. Styles List
We know that styles are a much better way to format a document than individual commands. Styles help maintain consistency throughout a document. This comes in very handy when working with a document that is longer than just a few pages. On the Home tab, click on the Styles Pane to open a list of styles. The default list is Recommended styles, but other options include Styles in use, In current document, or All styles. This allows you to quickly apply styles, especially those you have used before. At the bottom of the pane are two boxes that can be selected. Selecting Show styles guides will change the list to Styles in use and add color codes. These codes will also appear on the left side of the document, showing you which styles are used on each line of the document. Selecting the Show direct formatting Guide will highlight sections of text that have been manually formatted.



2. Use Word as a Whiteboard
We often think of writing in a Word document as beginning at the top of the document and typing text in from top to bottom. You might occasionally insert text boxes to put callout text in the document. But there are other ways to write more creatively.

You can use a Word document as a digital whiteboard. You can type anywhere on the page simply by double-clicking wherever you want to write. It is not necessary to put line or paragraph breaks, spaces or tabs to type text in multiple areas.


3. Multiple Views
When working with a long document, there may be times when you want to view different parts of it at the same time. This is especially important in writing compiled genealogy, where you might want to see the entry for someone in a child list, and their own sketch later in the document as an adult with his/her own family. Instead of scrolling back and forth, you can easily see different sections of the document at the same document. There are two options for doing this.

By going to the View tab and selecting New Window, Word will open a second window for the same document. Any changes in one window will appear in the other window as well. Closing one of the windows does not lose the changes, as you are working in a single document from two different access points. If you like, you can continue to open up additional windows for multiple access points. Once you have the different windows open, select Arrange All to organize them on your desktop.

If you don’t have a large monitor, you can access a different part of a document in the same window. Just select Split on the View tab. This will split the window into two panes, and you can scroll each pane independently. Once again, it is two views into the same document, so changes made in one pane will appear in the other. To go back to a single pane, go back to the View tab. The Split button now says Remove split. Select it and the split disappears. Mac users can also access this functionality in the Window option on the menu bar.


4. Smart Lookup
Sometimes when we are writing we transcribe words or phrases that we might not understand, or we need more information about. Perhaps we want to elaborate a bit for the benefit of the reader. Our habit, of course, is to open our internet browser and go to our favorite search engine to see what we can find. Word offers you the opportunity to look right from Word.

Select a string of text, then control-click (Mac) or right click (Windows). In newer versions of Word, you will see an option for Smart Lookup. Select that option, and you will get internet search results in a pane on the right side of the Word window. You will also have an option to Search with Google or Search with Bing. Selecting those options will open your internet browser with search results for the term. Older versions offer only the search options.


5. Customize Your Ribbon

Word comes with eight standard tabs: Home, Insert, Design, Layout, References, Mailings, Review, and View. Each tab comes with a standard set of command buttons. But these are not the only buttons available.

Mac users with Word 2016 should go to the menu bar and select Word>Preferences. Then choose Ribbon and Toolbar.
Office 365 users and Windows users with Word 2016 should go to the File tab and select Options then choose Customize Ribbon.

The box on the left will show you  list of command buttons that can be added to any of the tabs. To make it easier, the best choice is to select from the dropdown box Commands Not in the Ribbon. This will display only the command buttons that are not already on a tab. Simply choose the command and select the tab you would like to add it to, then click the right arrow. You can also delete commands from tabs that you never use, if you want to make more room on the tab for other commands.

If there are tabs you don’t use, such as mailings, you can remove the tab from view by unchecking the box next to the tab name. You can also create your own tabs and give them whatever name you like.

Postal Abbreviations for Genealogists

Today we are quite used to addressing our mail with a two-capital-letter abbreviation for the U.S. state or Canadian province/territory. These codes, however, have not been around forever. They have not even been around for the entire existence of living people. It was not until 1963 the the U.S. Post Office required the use of uppercase-two-letter abbreviations. Prior to that time, abbreviations were longer and of mixed case.

In the early Federal period, states and territories were given one- or two-letter abbreviations, based on their names. States and territories with two-word names were given two-letter abbreviations, usually the first letter of each word. New York, for example was N.Y., and S.C. stood for South Carolina. States with one word might have a single letter abbreviation. In instances where there would be no confusion, a single uppercase letter was used: Ohio, for example, was O., and Pennsylvania was P. But in some cases there were letters that started the names of multiple states. These locations were given two-letter abbreviations, an uppercase letter followed by a lowercase letter. Examples include Va. for Virgnia and Vt. for Vermont.

Chart of postal abbreviations. (Table of the Post Offices in the United States, 1831)

It is important to remember, however, that not all abbreviations are necessarily recognizable to modern researchers. It is critically important when researching in old documents, especially letters, to look at the time period in which the source was created, and to research the history of that time. One should also look in old postal directories to determine the meaning of the abbreviation. Confusion can creep in when we are unfamiliar with the history or the place names of the time. For example, those unfamiliar with history might think that O.T. is the abbreviation for Ohio Territory. In reality, that area was the Ohio Country or the Northwest Territory. It was never the Ohio Territory. The use of O.T. in the early nineteenth century referred to the Orleans Territory, part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the same year that Ohio became a state. Confusion can also creep in when looking at old-style abbreviations that are the same as modern day abbreviations. Today, the abbreviation MS stands for Mississippi, but in days past, Ms. was the abbreviation for Massachusetts.

The 1811 postal guide shows many these early abbreviations, but it was not until 1831 that the post office printed a separate chart just for the abbreviations. In 1874, the USPO published a list of abbreviations that remained relatively stable for the next 90 years, until the introduction of zip codes and two-uppercase-letter abbreviations in 1963.

It is important for genealogists to be aware of these old-style abbreviations not only for research, but for writing as well. We do not use the modern abbreviations in genealogical writing because they are harsh, and in the internet age the equivalent of shouting. They interrupt the train of thought of the reader. So we use the old-style abbreviations to make it easier for the reader to focus on the text. One exception to this is in footnotes. Some journals follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which states that the modern abbreviation can be used for sources. Many genealogical journals, however, continue to use the old-style abbreviation to make it easier on the eye for the reader. Following is a list of the old-style abbreviations used in genealogical writing:

United States








Neb. or Nebr.







New Hampshire



Cal. or Calif.

New Jersey



Col. or Colo.

New Mexico




New York




North Carolina




North Dakota













Ore. or Oreg.




Pa., Penn., or Penna.



Rhode Island




South Carolina




South Dakota





















Va. or Vir.







West Virginia

W.Va. or W.Vir.




Wis.or Wisc.











British Columbia






Prince Edward Island


New Brunswick








Northwest Territories


Yukon Territory

Yuk. or Y.T.

Nova Scotia


ASG Scholar Award

For 77 years, the American Society of Genealogists is the most prestigious organization in our field. Membership is limited to 50 individuals who are leading published scholars in the field of American genealogy. It promotes the highest standards of scholarship in the field.

Each year they present the ASG Scholar Award. This annual scholarship provides a stipend of $1,000 toward tuition and expenses at one of five major education programs:

Applications are being accepted now for the 2017 award. To apply, submit the following:

  • a résumé that emphasizes activities relating to genealogy and lists the applicant’s publications in the field, if any (prior publications are not necessary).
  • a manuscript or published work of at least 5,000 words, demonstrating an ability to conduct quality genealogical research, analyze results, and report findings in an appropriately documented fashion. If the submission is to be returned, it should be accompanied by an envelope or bagging with sufficient postage.
  • a statement (100–150 words) which (1) identifies the individual’s choice of program and (2) explains why the individual feels that attendance will enhance his or her growth as a genealogical scholar.

Applications should be sent to ASG Vice-President Joseph C. Anders, II, at jca2nd@gmail.com by August 31. The award recipient will be announced by October 15, 2017.

This is a great opportunity to not only hone your writing skills, but to also get financial assistance to get high-quality genealogical education. Find out more on the ASG website.

Plurals vs. Possessives

When we were young, we spent much time in school, starting in elementary all the way through high school, learning how to write. This included basics of spelling and grammar. Somewhere along the way, however, we often forget some of these lessons. One of the places where this is increasingly evident than in the formation of plurals and possessives.

Think back to your school days. How do we turn a word from the singular form to the plural? The answer is very simple. We add the letter s to the end of the word, or the letters es if the worn already ends in the letter s. For example:

  • Mansion becomes Mansions
  • House becomes Houses
  • Christmas becomes Christmases

Nouns ending in f or fe change the f to a v and the plural ends in an es. If the noun ends in a consonant followed by the letter y, the y changes to an ie before the s. If it ends in a vowel and a letter y, simply add the letter s. The exception is proper nouns, where the letter y is always followed by an s (e.g., Tonys, Emmys, etc.).

To make a possessive, one adds an apostrophe and the letter s after a word (or just an apostrophe if the word already ends in the letter s). Examples include:

  • John’s pencil
  • The dog’s bed

Proper nouns, including the names of families, never use an apostrophe unless one is referring to something owned by that family.

  • The Morins (referring to member of the Morin family)
  • The Holmeses (referring to members of the Holmes family)
  • The Morin’s house
  • The Holmes’s car

The same holds true for decades. One writes “the 1920s” or “the 50s” never “the 1920’s” or “the 50’s.”

There are, of course, some exceptions to the above rules, but not to the rule about that plurals are never used for plurals, only for possessives. For more help on this subject, see Bryan A. Garner. The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) 23–29.