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What Is Find and Replace? And Why You Should Be Using It

Posted by Capstone Editing on 17 April 2017

What Is Find and Replace? And Why You Should Be Using It

You may already know that it is possible to search a Word document for a particular word, phrase or string of characters. This is the Find function in Word. Once you have found your target text, you have the option of replacing it with something. This is the Find and Replace function in Word.

As will be revealed by this series of articles, the many powerful uses of the Find and Replace function mean that if you are not currently using it when working in Word, you really should be.

This first article of the series explains what Find and Replace is and the components of the Find and Replace dialogue box. In subsequent articles, the usefulness of Find and Replace for any author or editor will be demonstrated through relevant examples.

What Is Find and Replace

Find and Replace is a function in Word that allows you to search for target text (whether it be a particular word, type of formatting or string of wildcard characters) and replace it with something else.

Using the Find and Replace tool is an important part of maintaining absolute consistency in your document, as it allows you to implement your style sheet. But beyond this, it is a valuable tool for speeding up typing and formatting tasks, potentially saving you hours of work.

The Find and Replace Dialogue Box

The quickest way to open the Find and Replace dialogue box is to type Ctrl + H. You will then see this box:

The Find and Replace Dialogue Box, and why you should use it

In the ‘Find what’ field, you will enter what you want to search for. In the ‘Replace with’ field, you will enter what you want to insert instead.

Replace or Replace All?

You then have two options: Replace or Replace All. Choosing Replace lets you decide for each instance whether you want to replace it or not. For example, if you are using Find and Replace to replace ‘organization’ with ‘organisation’ in a journal article that should be written in British/Australian English, you want to check each instance of ‘organization’ before replacing it with ‘organisation’. Therefore, you should use Replace.

If you were to use Replace All, you would incorrectly change instances of ‘organization’ that should be kept in your document (e.g. if they are in quotations, in the reference list, or in the official names of organisations such as the World Trade Organization).

When you know that you want to replace all instances of something in your document, you can then use Replace All. For example, if you know that you have misspelled an author name in your document (e.g. you want to replace all instances of ‘Jorgenson’ with ‘Jørgenson’), you can use Replace All safely.

More Options

In the bottom-left corner of the dialogue box, you will see the option More. Clicking this expands the dialogue box, to show all the options at your disposal.

More options in The Find and Replace Dialogue Box

The options under More are grouped into three categories: search options, formatting options and special characters.

Search Options

Checking a search option will modify your Find search in some way. Using these options can make your Find search more effective and efficient, by excluding unwanted search results or making sure all desired results are included. A detailed explanation of these search options, with examples, is provided in the supplementary article to this series: ‘Understanding the Find and Replace Search Options’.

Formatting Options

Clicking Format will open a drop-down menu as shown in the following figure.

Formatting options in the Find and Replace Dialogue Box

Using these options, you can search either for text with these formatting characteristics (e.g. only italicised instances of a specified word) or for all instances of that formatting (by not typing anything into the Find box, and searching only for the formatting characteristics). Example of both of these search types are provided in the article in this series, ‘What You Can Do with Find and Replace: Part II’.

Special Options

Clicking Special opens a drop-down menu of all the special characters you can insert in your Find searches, as shown below.

Special Options in the Find and Replace Dialogue Box

Special characters are used in two ways: To make Find searches more flexible, and to create Find and Replace searches that include characters that cannot otherwise be typed into the Find what box (e.g. the paragraph mark or a line break). Examples of these kinds of uses are given in the articles ‘What You Can Do with Find and Replace: Part I’ and 'What You Can Do with Find and Replace: Part II’.

You should now have a thorough theoretical understanding of what Find and Replace is, and the options it offers. The next articles in this series demonstrate some practical uses of Find and Replace, using examples relevant to the average academic writer and editor. 

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What Is Find and Replace? And Why You Should Be Using It