• 3-minute read
  • 22nd December 2015

How to Override Figure and Table Numbering in MS Word

As the Matrix franchise taught us, sometimes computers are a bit too clever for their own good. This isn’t to say we don’t appreciate Microsoft Word’s automatic numbering system: it’s certainly a time saver. It’s just that sometimes we want to do things our own way.

MS Word’s automatic captions, for instance, don’t let you choose a numbering style. Instead, all images get a generic ‘Figure’ caption (e.g. Figure 1) and tables get a generic ‘Table’ caption (e.g. Table 1).

You might, however, want to use a different numbering system, such as chapter-specific numbering (e.g. the images in chapter one would be Figure 1a, Figure 1b). Or you might not want to use numbered captions at all.

Luckily, it’s easy enough to override the automatic numbering as long as you know how to use MS Word’s ‘Styles’ options.

Writing Your Own Captions

The key here is not to use the ‘Insert Caption’ option typically used to label figures and tables. Instead, go to the ‘Home’ tab in MS Word and select the ‘Styles’ menu. In here you will find a style called ‘Caption’ (hint: you might have to select ‘All Styles’ from the options).

The 'Style' options.
The ‘Style’ options.

Once you’ve selected ‘Caption’, place the cursor where you want your caption to appear and type it using your preferred numbering format.

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If you want to list tables and figures separately using this method, click the ‘Create a Style’ or ‘New Style’ button in the ‘Styles’ menu and select ‘Caption’ for the ‘Style Based On’.

Creating a new style.
Creating a new style.

If you name this ‘Caption 2’ or ‘Caption Tables’, you can then use it to distinguish between different caption types.

Adding Lists of Figures/Tables

Once you’ve written your captions, you’ll need to create a list of figures/tables. To do this, find the place you want to insert the table, go to the ‘References’ tab in MS Word and click on ‘Insert Table of Figures’ (n.b., on Mac, go to ‘Insert’, ‘Index and Tables’, then ‘Tables and Figures’).

Adding a table of figures.
Adding a table of figures.

Once the ‘Table of Figures’ menu pops up, usually you would select either ‘Tables’ or ‘Figures’ to insert a list of the captions labelled as either ‘Tables’ or ‘Figures’. To use your own captions instead, click on the ‘Options’ button and select your chosen caption style from the ‘Style’ menu in the pop-up dialog box.

Finally, click the ‘OK’ button in the ‘Table of Figures’ dialog box and a list of the selected captions will appear where you placed the cursor. If you make any subsequent changes to the captions, don’t forget to use the ‘Update Table’ option so that your lists of figures/tables remain accurate.

Comments (4)
13th August 2019 at 07:30
Hi, thanks for this article - it is almost just what I'm after! However, I still can't get it to work. I'm familiar with using styles, but when I select 'caption' as a style, it doesn't seen to format the caption in the way I need it to in order to link it to a cross-reference. I have written a caption and formatted it using styles. I have inserted a cross-reference. However, when I select 'Figure' from the drop-down list, the caption does not appear for me to select. Clearly it hasn't got the right attributes. Can you help please? I would really like to use figure captions that can be updated when the text changes, but I need to be able to customise the way they are displayed.
    13th August 2019 at 07:48
    Hi, Jane. Is the problem that you are simply typing using 'Caption' as a style? For something to show up as a 'Figure' in the cross-reference menu, it needs to be labelled as a figure when you add it. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's a way to add a label except via the 'Insert Caption' menu.
Patricia Livera
27th April 2022 at 16:22
I have inserted, under reference, figure and table numbers. However, every time I insert a table using references - insert captions, it changes all of my previously inserted figures to tables also. I have done this before in numerous documents, but this is the first time this has happened. What can I do?
    28th April 2022 at 08:22
    Hi, Patricia. I'm afraid that's not something we've encountered before and sounds like a bug, so you might be better off asking someone on the Microsoft support forums: https://support.microsoft.com/

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