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How to reverse the order of a list and maintain the original order in Word

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Reversing a Word list requires a few unexpected steps, but it’s all about the formatting. Susan Harkins will show you how it’s done.

Image: prima91/Adobe Stock

Doing anything to a long list in a Word document can be tedious work that’s bound to introduce errors. Such is the case with reversing the order of a list that’s not in any other kind of order — not alphabetical, not numerical or even a custom sort. For instance, the list might be in entry order. Maintaining that original order might be important, so sorting becomes a bit dicey. In this article, I’ll show you how to reverse a Word list and then return it to the original order if you like.

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I’m using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use an earlier version. For your convenience, you can download the demonstration .docx and .doc files. This technique won’t work in Word for the web.

How to try a descending sort in Word

Figure A shows a simple list that you could reverse by sight if you wanted to, but what if it extended over a couple of pages, or even more? You might already know that you can sort a list, but in this case that feature doesn’t work as you might expect if you expect the feature to sort the list in reverse order. (There’s a copy of the list so we can compare results.)

Figure A

We’ll reverse this Word list.
We’ll reverse this Word list.

To sort the simple list in Figure A, select all of the list items and then do the following:

  1. Click Sort in the Paragraph group on the Home tab.
  2. In the resulting dialog, change the default Ascending to Descending (Figure B).
  3. Click OK.

Figure B

Choose a Descending sort.
Choose a Descending sort.

If you compare the sorted list in Figure C to the copy below, you’ll see that it is not reversed.

Figure C

The list isn’t in reversed order.
The list isn’t in reversed order.

Word sorted the list in descending order and reversed isn’t the same as descending. So, while this is a pretty cool feature, it won’t get the job done in this situation. Let’s look at a sort that does work, but before you continue, be sure to press Ctrl + Z to undo the sort.

How to add a sequential list of numbers in Word

By adding a sequential value to the list, you can reverse the order or sort in some other way, without losing the original order. Fortunately, the solution is easy but does require a few steps because we must first convert the list into a table, which you might not want to keep.

The first step is to convert the list into a Word table as follows:

  1. Select the list.
  2. Click the Insert tab and then click Table in the Tables group.
  3. In the resulting dialog, choose Insert Table.

With the new single-column table selected, add a column by right-clicking the selection, choosing Insert from the dropdown and then selecting Insert Columns to the Left from the submenu (Figure D).

Figure D

Insert a column to the left.
Insert a column to the left.

Because only one column is selected before we insert another, Word inserts only one new column (Figure E). At this point, the width of the columns doesn’t matter.

Figure E

Now the table has two columns.
Now the table has two columns.

The next step is to add a sequential list of numbers to the new column as follows:

  1. Select the empty column by hovering over its top border until the mouse turns into a down arrow. Then click to select the column.
  2. Next, click Numbering to add a list of sequential numbers to the new column (Figure F).

Figure F

Add a list of sequential numbers to the empty column.
Add a list of sequential numbers to the empty column.

With the list of numbers in place, you might think you can reverse the list now, but you can’t. This numbered list has special formatting that Word can’t interpret when sorting. Fortunately, this problem adds only a few simple steps.

First, select only the column of numbers and copy the list to the Clipboard by pressing Ctrl + C. Don’t try to cut the list; it won’t work as expected. Then, move the cursor to an area with no content, such as the end of the document or even a new blank document. Paste the numbered list by clicking the Paste dropdown and choosing Keep Text Only. Doing so removes the special formatting that gives Word trouble (Figure G). If you miss this step, this solution won’t work.

Figure G

Remove Word’s numbering format.
Remove Word’s numbering format.

With the special formatting gone, copy this list to the Clipboard again. Then, return to the numbered column, delete the numbered list and paste the unformatted list from the Clipboard into the empty column. Don’t try to paste over the existing numbered list because it won’t work the way you expect.

How to reverse the list order in Word

Using the sort feature that we reviewed earlier, we can now reserve the order of the list in the second column. First, click the table handle to select the entire list (the small square in the table’s top-left corner). Then, do the following:

  1. Click Sort in the Paragraph group (on the Home tab).
  2. In the resulting dialog, choose Column 1 from the Sort By dropdown.
  3. Click the Descending sort (Figure H).

Figure H

Paste the unformatted list of numbers into the table’s first column.
Paste the unformatted list of numbers into the table’s first column.

Once you have the list in reverse order (Figure I), you have a bit of cleanup left:

  • You can remove column 1 and the table. If you might need to resort at a later date, you repeat these steps. However, if you might want an alphabetical sort on the second column with the ability to return to the original order, you have a decision to make. Will you remember to reverse the column before sorting? This is an unlikely problem, but something to consider when deciding what to do with that column of numbers.
  • Don’t forget to delete the list of unformatted numbers that you pasted to the end of the document.

Figure I

After reversing the list, you can leave the list of numbers or delete it and the column.
After reversing the list, you can leave the list of numbers or delete it and the column.

A reverse sort isn’t difficult, but it isn’t exactly intuitive either. You can’t work with the formatted number list. Once you remove the special formatting, you can use the list of numbers to reverse order and return to the original order.

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