The Efficient Editor: Win With Word Wildcards

Video transcript

Editing can involve a lot of tedious work conforming text to house style – for instance, changing something like this…

…to something like this.

Only thousands of times.

Sometimes you even have to change this…

…into this.

Which can be tedious to do. …Unless you’re willing to go wild! Wildcard find and replace, that is.

Welcome to today’s episode of The Efficient Editor.

A great place to learn about Word wildcards is Jack Lyon’s helpful and handy Wildcard Cookbook. It’s available for free download from But we’d like to take a couple of minutes right now to show you how wildcards work and what they can do for you.

Word Wildcards may seem like deep, dark, inscrutable magic spells. But in reality, they use a small number of basic principles and characters, and once you know those, the secrets are unlocked.

Meet the Wildcard Bunch: ordinary symbols that are secret superheroes. Their power is unleashed when you check the “Use wildcards” box in Word’s Find and Replace dialog.

The asterisk is the wildest one. It stands for any number of characters of any type – or no character at all!

The question mark stands for any one character at a time.

The square brackets mean “Choose from this set!” The set can have a list of individual characters – or a range.

The “at” sign means “Again!” It can be used with square brackets (indicating a set of characters) to make it a real team player.

The angle brackets (that’s the less than and greater than signs) are word boundaries. The less than sign means the start of a word. The greater than sign means the end of a word.

Combine your superheroes to find an incredible variety of words. Try not to further combine them with a word list to cheat at online word games.

The exclamation mark means “not!” As in “Not this! Anything but this!” You can use it to avoid finding certain specific characters or combinations.

The curly brackets mean “Repeat this a certain number of times.” Put one number in to say how many times to repeat it. Put two numbers in to specify a range of numbers of times.

The parentheses are the sheepdogs. They work with the backslash. Use parentheses in the “Find” box to group things. For example, to find all dates that put “AD” after the number and move it to before, find:

- any one to four digits,

- a space,

- capital AD. 

Those will be represented in the “Replace with” box by backslash 1, backslash 2, and backslash 3.

You can move, remove, or replace any group. To fix the dates, just swap the numbers and the “AD.”

But the backslash is also a double agent! If you put it in the “Find” box, it strips the other superheroes of their power. Use it before a superhero character and it turns that back into a search for its literal character!

Get the Wildcard Bunch working in a team and you can save a lot of time on some fairly basic replacements. For example, to find two-letter state abbreviations that are in parentheses and change them to be between commas, find:

- a space and the opening parenthesis – that’s backslash parenthesis to indicate a real parenthesis, inside parentheses that make it the first group,

- any two capital letters,

- closing parenthesis – that’s backslash parenthesis again.

In the “Replace with” box, those would be backslash 1, 2, and 3.

But this time, you replace it with:

- a comma and a space,

- backslash 2,

- and another comma.

You can also use wildcards for more complex operations, like restyling a whole bibliography.

You probably don’t want to have to look wildcards up, check them, and test them every time you need them! So you’ll be happy to know that you can have the Wildcard Bunch ready and set to do whatever tasks you need them to, again and again, just by adding them to a PerfectIt style.

Adding wildcards to PerfectIt helps you find all possible instances and means you can check and fix them one by one with lots of emphasis on the context, so you don’t accidentally change something you shouldn’t!

If you aren’t already using PerfectIt, get the free trial at

If this video has been helpful, please share it with your friends. And stay tuned for the next episode of The Efficient Editor!