MS Word: Track Changes, Printing, Fields/Cross-References (Figures, Tables, etc) and Undesirable Highlighted Changes

May 11th, 2007

The “Track Changes” feature of Microsoft Word can be very useful, but sometimes it can produce unwanted results. By turning on “Track Changes”, Word will highlight changes to your document as you make them. Here is an example below:

Here is a paragraph from the original. This sentence has been added. Here is a sentence from the original that is unchanged. This word has been deleted from the original. This sentence has been deleted. See word1word2 get replaced. Get it?

The Problem

The problem occurs when you have “cross-references” (or more accurately, “fields”) such as figure numbers or chapter numbers. When these fields are updated (such as when printing or when performing Ctrl-A/F9) they appear as if they were deleted and re-added. Here is an example to illustrate this:

This sentence refers to Figure 5-1Figure 5-1. This original sentence is unchanged. This sentence is added. This original sentence is removed. This sentence has a cross reference to Chapter 5.3Chapter 5.3.

Notice that Word shows Figure 5-1 as deleted and then added, but in actuality, it hasn’t changed! This can be very annoying for people who are reviewing your new document. Accepting each change won’t help because next time the fields are updated, the same thing will occur. In order to understand how to fix this problem, it is useful to understand how it happened in the first place.

Why This Happens

The cross-reference (or “field”) feature in Word for is useful in case a figure number, chapter number, etc changes. This happens if you insert a new figure or chapter heading before an existing one – causing the numbering of the old figure/chapter to increase (also, if you delete a figure/chapter, the numbering may decrease). When one goes to print the document, Word will update all of these cross-references to update the numbering. A user may also do this manually by highlighting the cross-reference in Word and pressing “F9”. Often this is performed “one-shot” by selecting everything in the document (Ctrl-A) and pressing F9. If you print or perform the F9 update while Word has “Track Changes” turned on, it will cause many of the cross-references to have this problem.

The Solution

Therefore, the solution to this problem is simple. When you are printing or updating cross-references (via F9), simply turn off “Track Changes” while you do so. This can be accomplished by pull-down menu: Tools->Track Changes (the shortcut key is “Ctrl+Shift+E”). This will toggle “Track Changes” from on to off and vice versa. When updating your cross-references with “Track Changes” turned off, it will not remove the highlights for other changes that are not cross-references. After you have updated them, if you want to make more edits that show up as changes, turn “Track changes” back on.

A nice feature of this solution is that if you had forgotten to turn off Track Changes previously, and you have these cross-references highlighted as changes, and you want to remove these highlights, simply turn off Track Changes and update (F9) the cross-references again. This can be done for the entire document at once by selecting everything (Ctrl-A) and then updating (F9).

If you were to highlight the above paragraph in Word, turned off “Track Changes” and hit “F9”, you would see the following result:

This sentence refers to Figure 5-1. This original sentence is unchanged. This sentence is added. This original sentence is removed. This sentence has a cross reference to Chapter 5.3.

Notice that the cross-references are no longer shown as changed, but that the sentences that were really added and deleted are still highlighted as differences.


There is a small drawback to this approach. Let’s say a figure number really has changed. For example, Figure 5-1 in the original became Figure 5-2 in the new document. When Track Changes is turned off during the F9 update, it will not highlight Figure 5-1 as changing to Figure 5-2. Is this really a problem? In most cases, the people reviewing your document are looking for changes in the actual content and don’t really care if the figure number has changed, therefore, this should rarely be an issue. If this is important to highlight this, then there is no easy solution for keeping the cross-references that are really unchanged as not highlighted while the ones that really did change are highlighted.


  1. Frik Stuarton 08 Jun 2007 at 3:06 am

    Great tip thanks. This will certainly save me countless hours of frustration. However, I view this as a work-around to a word bug. Word should be able to recognise when links and references have not changed and not highlight it as track changes. I would be surprised if Microsoft did not identify this problem during testing, but it was probably put in the “too hard” basket.

  2. Alessandro Trigliaon 17 Jun 2008 at 2:06 pm

    This is obviously a bug in MS Word, and one that has existed for many years (at least 6 years as far as I have experienced, but probably more). I can’t believe Microsoft is not aware of this bug after all these years, and I don’t understand why they haven’t fixed it.

  3. Cornell Whiteon 24 Oct 2008 at 8:11 pm

    Track Changes will also ruin a Table of Figures using the Captions — the same items that are used to create Cross References. If you delete a caption and put it back somewhere else with Track Changes on you can’t get the numbers to come out right until you Accept Changes on all the Caption items. You will be stuck with incrementing caption numbers from things you can’t even see. Accept Changes is a solid work around. It took me far too long to figure it out. (I’m using Word 2008 for Mac)

  4. Zaur Ton 04 Mar 2009 at 7:54 am

    Thanks for great tip !

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  6. Kevin Birchon 25 Mar 2010 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for useful info.
    I also find that all the cross-references get highlighted as changes if I just switch from Normal to Print View while Track Changes is on, without actually printing.

  7. Damian Szigetion 17 Aug 2010 at 8:43 am

    I have had success with “fixing” (going around) this problem by runing a variation of the solution listed above. I run track changes throughout the update and get all of the superfluous fields updated. After editing is complete, and I want to just see where real changes have occured, I 1) switch track changes off and 2) rerun the update cross references (i.e., CTRL A, F9) and 3) Review/Final Showing Markup.

  8. php programmer indiaon 22 Sep 2010 at 1:15 am

    That’s really nice share. All of use word in day to day activities so it will be helpful to everyone. I am going to share this with my friends. 🙂

  9. ehsanon 30 Jul 2012 at 7:14 am

    Thats man it works for me!

  10. dat1guyon 17 Apr 2013 at 11:04 am

    i used word for a long time on a personal document of mine, and wound up losing weeks worth of data because the feature got turned on automatically, from my experience, microsoft word is an application lacking bug-fix support, and is hardly worth using when broken functions like this cause lasting permanent damage to your documents.

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