Overtype in Microsoft Word – horrible or handy?

Overtype in Microsoft Word — horrible or handy?
Mac Tip #556, 17 October 2012

A lot of people use Microsoft Word. Usually they’re inserting text between or after existing text. But if you want to replace text there’s a technique called overtype you may not know about. And if it’s accidentally engaged you could spend hours figuring out why your Mac is ‘broken’. Here’s where to find Overtype and what it does.

This Tip came about after an email from Sonia that said, in part: when I start to type, each new character (including the space bar) deletes the one to its right. After I suggested she may have overtype mode enabled she was able to find and fix the problem.

Quick Start

  1. Overtype mode replaces text ahead of it instead of inserting text before existing text.
  2. Overtype mode is found In Preferences, but maybe also in a Toolbar.
  3. Overtype mode could be accidentally engaged with a keystroke.

If this Tip was useful, please leave a comment letting us know. Want more detail? Read the full Tip below.

This typical form uses underscores as place markers.

This typical form uses underscores as place markers.

Insert text

In most apps that deal with text, such as Microsoft Word, Pages.app, BBEdit, Scrivener and so on, you click in the spot where you want text to appear (or just at the start of a blank line) and start typing. As you type, any existing text moves away to make room for the new text that you’re inserting.

That initial click sets the insertion point — the place where you’ll insert text.

Here the underscores have been moved on two fields and replaced in two others.

Here the underscores have been moved in the Phone and Email fields and replaced in the date fields. Note how the ends of the lines do not or do still align.

Overtype mode

Some apps, such as Microsoft Word, also offer a different way of inserting text. It’s called overtype, and it does what the name suggests: it types over (and replaces) existing text.

For example, suppose you have the following text:

The news was bad for Barry.

You want to replace Barry with Alice.

One way to do that is to delete the word Barry, make sure the insertion point is after the space at the end of the sentence and then type Alice.

Another way is to select the word Barry and then just start typing. Anything you type replaces everything that is selected.

With overtype turned on though, you could simply click before the word Barry and start typing. Each letter you type replaces a letter that’s already there. Using Overtype, you don’t have to delete anything in advance.

Overtype is handy for forms

Have you ever downloaded one of those forms that helpfully makes a line out of underscore characters for you to type on? As you type, the line of underscores moves along, eventually wrapping on to the next line. To keep the page length right you may then have to delete the superfluous underscores.

That’s a perfect case of using overtype mode. Each character you type replaces an underscore.

Turn Overtype on and off

How you turn Overtype mode on and off may depend on the exact version of Microsoft Word you use. You may find it in Preferences, add it to a Toolbar or set up a keystroke for it.

Word preferences Overtype mode.

Word preferences Overtype mode.

Check the Editing Preferences in Word and look for a checkbox beside Overtype mode.

Overtype button on toolbar.

Overtype button on toolbar.

To add a handy Toolbar button for Overtype mode Control (⌃) click on a toolbar and choose Customize. Then you can find the Overtype mode button and drag it to a Toolbar. Click the button to toggle Overtype mode on or off.

Set keystroke for overtype.

Set keystroke for overtype.

To add a keystroke find the Customize Keyboard settings and assign your preferred keystroke.

Some keyboards may have an Insert (Ins) key. Experiment with toggling the key to see if it affects Overtype mode.

I wasn’t able to test this last suggestion as none of my keyboards have an Insert key.

Handy references

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  1. Viv Paterson said:

    Thank you for your valuable tip. I followed your “To add a handy toolbar…” instructions – very easy. I have now set an overtype button on my toolbar as my work keyboard doesn’t have the insert button that is on all other keypads I have used. Very useful.

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      Thanks Viv. I’m glad it’ll be useful. Really that form-filling thing is probably where it’s of most use. I’ve certainly had forms before now where I had to edit heavily to maintain the original layout.

  2. Jerry Tullman said:

    Add all these little “conveniences” that have crept into MS Word and subtract the drawing capability that has been removed and you get the complicated mess that is now part of Office 2011. How I long for the simple old Word 5.1!

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      Jerry, Overtype has been in Word for years and years. As for why you’d want to draw in Word, rather than in a drawing app I can’t imagine…

      As for Word itself, I don’t use it and haven’t for years now. Try Pages for wordprocessing and page layout, or my must-have apps, BBEdit and Scrivener, for actual writing.

  3. Sonia Kleyman said:

    That was fantastic. Not only solved my problem but gave me another useful tool. I now know how I can use overtype. I just didn’t know I had accidentally engaged it. Thanks to Miraz for walking me through it. I do have an ‘insert’ key and it was very easy to touch it by mistake.

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