Outline numbering

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« Multiple Kinds of Numbering

The most common form of Outline List is Heading Numbering. We often see this in technical, engineering and academic documents. In legal documents, body text paragraphs are frequently outline-numbered.

An Outline List is a nested set of nine lists. 

The brain-breaking feature of Outline Lists is that everything I said about "simple" lists is true...multiplied by nine!

All the complexities of the Numbered list also occur in Outline Numbered Lists. There can be multiple lists in a document, or only one. Each list can restart multiple times or only once.

I'll type this slowly so we can all follow... an Outline List has more than one level of numbering, and each of the lower levels numbers independently to, but inherits from, its higher levels. The following is an outline numbered list:

Heading 1

   Heading 1.1

   Heading 1.2

   Heading 1.2.1

   Heading 1.2.2

   Heading 1.3

   Heading 1.3.1

Heading 2

No, I typed those out by hand: there's no way I could send that sequence across the Internet as Word numbering: if I tried, I have no idea what you would see! Notice there are three "levels" of numbering in the list.

Item 1 and Item 2 are both members of Level 1. Items 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 are members of level 2. Items 1.2.1, 1.2.2 and 1.3.1 are members of level 3.

An Outline List has an extra property that simple List Numbered lists do not have: the paragraph's level. Actually, the level property exists in the simple lists, but is always set to 1 and ignored. In an outline numbered List Template the level is an integer between 1 and 9 that determines the paragraph's level in the numbering scheme. This list level operates independently of the style and controls the number formatting. This is how legal documents can have multi-level lists in which all the paragraphs are formatted with the Normal style.

Each of the levels of an outline list can number in a different sequence, and each level can have a different ordinal digit. The ordinal digit is a "number" to you and I, although you can specify a letter; or in a bulleted list, a character.

To fully appreciate this horror, you need to consider the following:


The first item


The second item



The first sub-item


The second sub-item



A sub-sub-item


Another sub-item


Another top-level item

The above example demonstrates three of the levels of a default outline list.

In the example, there are seven paragraphs. They may all be members of the same List Template, or they could have more than one List Templates applied. Each paragraph could be attached to a different List Template. 

When I prepared the example, it had only one style applied. However, there could be three. The List Template may associate a single style with all nine levels, or one style for each level, or no style at all (which means it could be applied over the top of any style(s)).

Of course, if some or all of the paragraphs are assigned different List Templates, the actual style definitions applied become close to random. A Word document tends to crash if the number of List Templates in a single List Gallery exceeds 256, so we have potentially 2,304 combinations of formatting for each list. In a 300-page manual with a list on each page, that's more than half a million differences in the numbering within a single document. In a document that is supposed to follow the company's standard style guide.

Now you can understand why MVPs often advise people simply to remove all the numbering from a document and start again: the complexities far exceed the capacity of a human being to work with them.