Is there a way in ArcGIS Desktop 9.2 (ArcMap) to change the symbology of selected features, over multiple field values?

My example is, I've run an attribute query on the 'landscape categories' field of my shapefile, to find every feature in a category which includes the letters 'forest'. This includes categories which are essentially the same or similar enough that I want to display them as being the same, such as 'forestry', 'areas of forest', 'forest', 'forested hills'.... etc etc, there are loads.

I can select them all using this attribute query quite easily, but I then want to make them all green for example. I thought I'd be able to do this in my Properties > Symbology > Categories > Unique Values tab, by just right-clicking and selecting 'Properties for Selected Symbols', but apparently selecting features through an attribute query doesn't count as selecting symbols in this tab, i.e. nothing is selected,

Does anyone know an easy (code-free) way of doing this?

I know I could export my selection as a new layer, but I want to keep all my info as one shapefile and I'll need to do this for quite a few categories. I'm also not keen on the idea of adding a field in the attribute table for 'colour' etc, I'm trying to keep the original shapefile as clean as possible.

  • The "Properties for Selected Symbols" that you refer to in your question is talking not talking about symbols that you selected with your selection tool. Rather it is talking about any symbols that you have selected within that properties window. Basically it is letting you change the symbology of multiple symbols at once for categories you already have in your Symbology. Jun 4, 2014 at 15:23
  • I think you've answered your own question. There isn't a way to do this without exporting or creating a new field that is populated with the attributes of your query.
    – GISHuman
    Jun 4, 2014 at 15:29
  • @GISKid That's not true. I think she can accomplish this by making a duplicate layer and Definition Queries. This doesn't require exporting or adding new fields. See my answer below. Jun 4, 2014 at 15:31
  • 2
    Also, note that creating multiple layers does not mean creating multiple shapefiles. You could apply your styling via definition queries as @SaraBarnes suggests in an excellent answer, then save as a layer file. Add all your resulting layer files and you'll have discrete looking layers all based on the same shapefile! Jun 4, 2014 at 15:39
  • It's been awhile since I used 9.2 but in the latest versions of ArcGIS in the symbology tab you can select multiple values for categories, right click on them and then group them for a single symbol, remove them, put them under there own headings, etc. Once you have something you like you can save it as a layer file and reuse it, even if you then revise a layer's symbology for other values or uses.
    – John
    Jun 4, 2014 at 16:55

2 Answers 2


One way you could do this (while avoiding the two other solutions you mentioned - creating a new layer from selected features, or adding a new field for color) is to use a Definition Query.

First, you will want to create a duplicate of your current layer so its in your Table of Contents twice. Then you will need to set a Definition Query for each of these two layers.

For one, use the Query Builder to create the expression that selects everything that mentions "forest". You can use something like:

"Field" LIKE '%forest%'

In the other layer, do the same thing, but exclude the ones that have "forest."

"Field" NOT LIKE '%forest%'

Then you can set your symbology accordingly, without adding any data to your shapefile.

  • Very nice solution! I always forget about definition queries! But I fear since OP has multiple queries it would then make the TOC cluttered as well (but I suppose exporting multiple .shps would have the same effect)
    – GISHuman
    Jun 4, 2014 at 15:34
  • @GISKid Thanks. It's true that it could clutter up the TOC if she has many categories. I was thinking she was only trying to work with the "forest" related items on this one. The more there are to work with, the more cluttered and complicated it could become. Jun 4, 2014 at 15:39
  • Thanks both! I do have multiple queries so it is a bit more complicated than I would have liked, and yes, the TOC will be busier and a bit untidier than I'd have liked so it's not ideal, but @SaraBarnes 's method certainly works without editing the original data or me having to go through each category manually to set symbology individually, so I'm really grateful for that - thanks :)
    – lisagravy
    Jun 4, 2014 at 15:52

Here is another option for you. I am currently running on 10.x, but I think this was available within Ver. 9.

Instead of selecting the "forest" like attributes, you can go into the layer properties, and change your symbology to show "Categories-Unique Values". Select "Add All Value" and let ArcMap find all of the values.

The next step becomes a manual task. In the value list, select all of your desired "forest" like attributes you want together. You will have to hold down the "Ctrl" key to select each. Once you have all of your desired attributes selected, Right-click on one of your selected attributes, and click "Group Values". This will group all of those into one category. Now you can set the symbol for all of these, and change the label.

Right-clicking on attributes can also let you "Remove" them from the list. This is handy if the removal list is shorter than the group list.

The drawback of this method is if someone adds another attribute not in your list, you may have to re-do this.

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