Captions, cross-references, and lists in Miscrosoft Word

Microsoft Word is often used where other software would do much better. However, there are situations when Word’s unique functionalities are necessary for an academic workflow. Among the most important of such features is the ability to automatically number, cross-refer, and list captions in academic texts.

A caption and a cross-reference in a text.

Captions are titles of Tables, Figures, Equations, Boxes and other pieces of content which are separate from the main text. Academic standards require that captions are sequentially numbered, referred to in the main text, and sometimes listed in the beginning of the publication. MS Word has a set of features to effectively manage your captions.

Use Insert …Caption… command to add a new caption. I have a special keyboard shortcut for this command because I use it so often. The command invokes a dialogue window which lets you to choose the type of caption (among default as well as user-defined) and the number format. Numbers can be of many different formats, can start at any number or letter, and can include chapter numbers (e.g. Figure 3.2, Box 6-a). You can change the formatting of the captions  by using the Insert Caption dialoque window and clicking on Numbering … Word automatically assigns the number based on the caption of the same type directly preceding the one you’re inserting. When you add, remove or move around your captions MS Word automatically renumbers them to retain the correct sequence.

Insert caption dialogue window

As a bonus, each caption is assigned the same Caption style, which can be adjusted to make the document look professional, for example to set your captions a certain distance from the preceding text or make sure that they are always on the same page with the following paragraph (which is essential not to have a page break between, say, a table and its caption).

To mention a caption in the text use the Insert… Cross-reference command (I also have a keyboard shortcut, in fact one of my most frequently used). This command brings up a dialogue window where you can choose whether you want to refer only to the number of the caption, the label and number (e.g. “as shown in Figure 5.1”), the whole text of the caption, the page number on which the caption is located, or whether it is above or below your mention.

Insert cross-reference dialogue window

The Insert … Cross-Reference function can be used to refer to virtually any numbered or specifically styled content, not only to captions. For example, “this discussion continues in section 5–3″, or ”as detailed in Footnote 18 on page 64“. Cross-references are updated automatically (and what a pain it would be to do this manually!).

Finally, MS Word can automatically produce a list of captions (e.g. of tables, figures etc in your document) with their numbers, titles and page numbers. Use Insert … Index and Tables… command and choose the type of captions you want listed as well as the format of your list.

Insert Index and Tables dialogue window

I find it interesting that such an indispensable feature seems to be only available in Word. This largely explains why I almost always use Word for the final stages of academic writing. Fortunately, MS Word 2011 for Mac has a decent user interface (reminding of the no-nonsense although certainly not pretty Word for Windows of the early 2000s which I was very used to) and is pretty fast and stable. However, transferring texts from Scrivener and then adding automatic captions and cross-references is certainly tedious so I am always open to an alternative solution for caption management.


About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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31 Responses to Captions, cross-references, and lists in Miscrosoft Word

  1. Josh says:

    Professor Cherp,
    I do find it strange that Word is one of the few WYSIWIG editors that has this functionality. I still find Word, however, extremely painful to implement, particularly when the document contains large numbers of figures or tables. I much prefer to write in LaTeX (using TeXShop) and enable cross-references via the hyperref package. Have you tried this? Is there a reason that you prefer Word?



    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Josh, I have never tried LaTeX and I’d be very happy to. May be you can give a reference to a simple introduction to this standard and related tools. Since I have keyboard shortcuts for Word it’s pretty fast for me to add captions and cross-references. Where I see a big problem is in integrating this with Scrivener where I do earlier drafts.


    • fred sachs says:

      I have document wit figures and I inserted cations using Word and groupe the captions with the figure so they stay together. I cannot renumber them. If I highlight everything and hit f9 nothing happens. What can one do?


      • Petr says:

        It seems that your problem is “grouping”. You don’t have to group picture/figure and its caption in Word in such a way. Caption should be text in word, not part of any graphical objects. So do it the right way as described below:
        1) First of all, enable display of non-printed characters – this allows you to see the effect of next steps. This feature is also helpful if you want to keep you document formatting clean and tidy.
        2) Right-click your picture and choose “Insert caption” from the context menu.
        3) In the dialog which pops-up select type of caption and settings as you require. E.g. set that caption should be placed below selected item. Hit Ok.
        4) Caption appeared below your picture.
        Now you also see (if p.1 was followed) that small black box appeared to the left of the picture itself. That means, that for the paragraph of this picture option “Keep with next” was enabled. This will force Word to keep caption text on the same page with picture itself. If there’s no enough place left on the page for both picture and caption than word will move both of them to the next page.
        This is correct way of captioning objects and it will enable you to update caption numbers automatically.


  2. I agree with Josh. The true power of using LaTeX lies in the ability to effortlessly have cross-references, figure captions, and all of those indispensable–yet tedious tasks–for producing an academic document. I think one of the clear downsides of MS Word is that it doesn’t handle these elements (cross-references, captions, etc.) in using multiple word files; e.g. a thesis, with a chapter per file. And for me this is a true deal breaker, because any Word document that exceeds a certain amount of pages, and if it has images and tables, then it becomes truly cumbersome to do things like opening it, let alone working with it.


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  4. Stephanie says:

    Hi, I am having trouble creating in Word for Mac, a list of tables. I have already a Table of Content and a List of Figures, but when I prompt in “Index and Tables” the Table of Tables, it never works. Any recommendations?


  5. Aleh Cherp says:

    You should use a List of Figures (“Table of Figures” in Word for Mac 2011) command to create a list of your tables. Select “Table” under Caption Label.


  6. Bob W says:

    Thanks for these notes. Im a Windows user moving to Mac. Are there keyboard shortcuts for these commands on a Mac? For instance, you can add a cross-reference with ALT-I-n-r and a caption with ALT-I-n-c and never take your hands off the keyboard. I have not been able to figure out how to do this on Mac. Any suggestions?


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      I agree that you need shortcuts to insert captions and cross-references. I am not sure that in-built shortcuts exist for these commands (but I did not even know they existed in Word for Windows), so I simply added my own shortcuts. It is very easy to do: go to Tools menu and select Customize Keyboard.


  7. J says:


    a question: sometimes reviewers propose to use bring several figures together under one caption and use a , b and c “fig. 3.1 shows the results of the three techniques (a) myTechnique;(b) myOtherTechnique (c) SomeOtherTechnique. But in that case I lose the possibilty to make a cross reference cause I can only refer to the fig.3.1 the ‘sub” captions can not be reffered to? or is there a solution?

    PS major advantage of word that reviewer, jury member, all people that comment and review the document can work with it and add comments, my PhD student used first LateX but then none of the other reviewers used it so he had to go to word



    • Aleh Cherp says:

      No, in such a case you will need to cross-refer as follows: “The right panel (a) in [Figure] shows the results of MyTechnique and the central panel (b) shows myOtherTechnique…” where [Figure] is an automatic cross-reference and the rest of the text is manual. Concerning the advantages of Word for collaboration, it is indeed often one of the most powerful platforms. Yet I often collaborate much more effectively without even touching Microsoft Word. For example: using Google Drive for collaborative editing; using the Revisions feature in Pages or Scrivener; sending comments as plain text by email, adding comments to pdf documents through pdf-pen or other software.


    • Heather says:

      You can also put the letter right after the cross-referenced text. It will then be treated like normal text, though the figure number might update. The only problem will be if you reorder which is a, b, and c you will then have to change the text manually.


  8. Ignatius Menzies says:


    Thanks for your article. I’m writing a PhD thesis, and use a similar workflow (word+mac) but have encountered a problem: there appears to be a max caption length/character limit. Do you have any advice or recommendation…aside from “shorten your captions” 🙂 thanks!


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Ignatius, I really think there is a difference between a caption (which is the figure’s number and title) and a legend (which explains everything about the figure). No other advise at this point!


  9. Jim Mongold says:


    I’m experiencing a problem, perhaps its a MS Word limitation. I’m using MS Word 2007 in a PC (business does not give me the Mac I enjoy so much at home) and I’m cross-referencing tables and figures in my text. When I cross reference headings, footnotes, etc., it will allow me to select the Label & Number (i.e., “Figure 7”, “Table 2”) but the check box for the “include before/after” is greyed out. Now I can select the Label & Number which it will insert, and then I can manually add “, ” (comma and space), and then go back to the cross reference box and now select out of the drop down list “after/before” which it will correctly put in place so I have the following:

    text text text [field for Label and number], [field for before/after] text text text….

    But I don’t remember having to do this in the past. I think I always selected whatever I wanted to reference and could always check the box to add “before/after.”

    Any thoughts?


  10. Pingback: When Microsoft Word is best for the job | Academic workflows on Mac

  11. Jessica says:

    I am a masters student, finishing the last touches on my thesis. I labeled all figures, tables, and plates in my document, inserted cross-references, and updated my TOC. But now all of my captions have changed to “figures”. When I change one table caption back to “table” all captions in my entire document change to “table”. My cross references seem to be ok. Any ideas on how to fix this? Thank you!!


  12. Nick says:

    Dear Professer Cherp,

    I came across this article and it is simpler than the Microsoft site so thank you!

    However, when inserting my table of figures I come across the problem that the caption (figure title) cannot be on the same line as the text of my figure legend. When I try to convert the figure legend text back to “Normal” it automatically changes back to “Caption”. Have you encountered this problem before? Is there a simple way for me to fix this? Or do I have to have the caption on a different line?

    Any help would be much appreciated! If not thank you for the consideration!


  13. Jim says:

    Try OpenOffice ( It has all kinds of (cross)reference features.


  14. Jagen says:

    Hey guys, need some help here, I believe it is closely related to the content of the article. I am doing my dissertation and I use images from papers here and there. I reference these images by popping the citation in the figure caption text like so “Figure 1.1 Carbon Emissions (Energy Agency, 2014). It is cited using words citation function. Bibliography is fine, caption is fine, but, in the table of figures up at the start of the document the table is including the citation in the list of figure captions after each entry, each entry takes up two lines and looks a mess. Any suggestions on eliminating the citation from the table of figures but not the caption itself. Any help is appreciated


  15. Eddie. says:

    I am having a hard time separating figures from tables in my “list of Figures”. I entered all my tables under caption label table and figures under caption figures. My “list of figures” seems to ignore labels and list all captions sorted by page number. Can you help me?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Miriam says:

    I use captions a lot to structure very long academic documents. Recently, however, the dialogue box that should open when I insert>caption does not open. Instead, I immediately have a caption inserted (e.g. Table 1.2:) in the text without any option to change to ‘figure’ or ‘equation’ or to change how I want the numbering to be shown. Does anyone know how to fix this?


  17. jayjaymartin says:

    Thanks!!! Did not know what to do!!! Going to progress bar and stopping made the outbox appear and I could delete old message that was to big to send and holding up other messages!!!


  18. Awadhesh Prasad says:

    A mysterious Word problem.
    In writing my thesis, I am having a mysterious problem. Some in-text references to tables and figures (cross reference inserted as label and number) appear as bold, while most others appear as in the surrounding text (normal) style. Even trying to change them to the surrounding text style does not work. This issues leads to a bigger problem. If the figures and tables whose references appear in bold, are moved by either paragraphs (single enter) breaks or page or section breaks, there appears a gap of paragraphs or page or section (depending upon the break used) immediately following the in-text cross reference. For example Table 5-3 is appearing as bold (while other references appear as normal). “As shown in Table 5-3, the movement of market is non-linear.” If I move the actual Table 5-3, by five lines using 5 ‘enter’ before Table 5-3 caption, the text in the sentence where Table 5-3 appears, is broken as:
    “As shown in Table 5-3,

    the movement of market is non-linear”.
    I do not know what is causing this. Even removing the reference and re-inserting it is not solving the problem. I am wasting a lot of time without any luck. Some tips to solve this will be highly appreciated.



  19. Marty says:

    My problem with a long document and many Figures comes when I have more than one figure on a single page. Word 2008 for mac (version 12.3.4) insists on automatically numbering the Captions from the lower right corner instead of the upper left corner. The result is the Figures (and their captions) are numbered in reverse order on that page. Any way to make it do what I want?


  20. I am having all sorts of problems with this feature. I basically want to control how Word refers to a caption, or what it consider a caption. I want to have references as a sequence of numbers, such as [1], That’s a field, that I might have created with a label “Ref”. Word thinks it is a caption. When I want to refer to [1] with a cross reference, Word identifies is using the entire paragraph. You can see the problem. If I have something like:

    My reference is [1] and my second reference is [2],

    Word will think both of these fields are captions with the same name. The name of the caption is: “My reference is [1] and my second reference is [2].” It just takes everything until a line break. That’s what appears in the list of captions. So, I cannot tell which caption to select, because they all look the same. Please help!


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