Relative, Absolute, and Mixed Cell References

Their usage in Excel and Google Sheets

An image showing a selected cell in Excel

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A cell reference in spreadsheet programs such as Excel and Google Sheets identifies the location of a cell in the worksheet.

A cell is one of the boxlike structures that fill a worksheet, and you can locate one by its references, such as A1, F26, or W345. A cell reference consists of the column letter and row number that intersect at the cell's location. When listing a cell reference, the column letter always appears first.

Cell references appear in formulas, functions, charts, and other Excel commands.

The information in this article applies to Excel versions 2019, 2016, 2013, Excel for Mac, Excel Online, and Google Sheets.

Cell Reference Use Enables Automatic Updating

One advantage of using cell references in spreadsheet formulas is that, normally, if the data located in the referenced cells changes, the formula or chart automatically updates to reflect the change.

If a workbook has been set not to update automatically when you make changes to a worksheet, you can carry out a manual update by pressing the F9 key on the keyboard.

Referencing Cells From Different Worksheets

Cell references are not restricted to the same worksheet where the data is located. Other worksheets in the same file can reference each other by including a notation that tells the program which sheet to pull the cell from.

You don't need a sheet notation if you're referring to a cell in the same worksheet.

Similarly, when you reference data in a different workbook, the name of the workbook and the worksheet are included in the reference along with the cell location.

To reference a cell on a different sheet, preface the cell reference with "Sheet[number]" with an exclamation point after it, and then the name of the cell. So if you want to pull info from Cell A1 in Sheet 3, you'll type, "Sheet3!A1."

A notation referring to another workbook in Excel also includes the name of the book in brackets. To use the information contained in Cell B2 in Sheet 2 of Workbook 2, you'll type, "[Book2]Sheet2!B2."

Cell Range

While references often refer to individual cells, such as A1, they can also refer to a group or range of cells. You identify ranges of cells by the starting and ending cells. In the case of ranges that occupy multiple rows and columns, you'll use the cell references of the cells in the upper left and lower right corners of the range.

Separate the limits of a cell range with a colon ( : ), which tells Excel or Google Sheets to include all the cells between these start and end points. So to grab everything between Cell A1 and D10, you'd type, "A1:D10."

To capture an entire row or column, you still use the cell range notation, but you only use the column numbers or row letters. To include everything in Column A, the range will be "A:A." To use Row 8, you'll type, "8:8." For everything in Columns B through D, you'll type, "B:D."

Relative, Absolute, and Mixed Cell References

The three types of references that can be used in Excel and Google Sheets are easily identified by the presence or absence of dollar signs ($) within the cell reference. A dollar sign tells the program to use that value every time it runs a formula.

  • Relative cell references contain no dollar signs (i.e., A1).
  • Mixed cell references have dollar signs attached to either the letter or the number in a reference but not both (i.e., $A1 or A$1).
  • Absolute cell references have dollar signs attached to each letter or number in a reference (i.e., $A$1).

You'll typically use an absolute or mixed cell reference if you set up a formula. For example, if you have a number in Cell A1, more numbers in Column B, and Column C contains the sums of A1 and each of the values in B, you'll use "$A$1" in the SUM formula so that when you autofill, the program knows to always use the number in A1 instead of the empty cells below it.

Copying Formulas and Different Cell References

Another advantage of using cell references in formulas is that they make it easier to copy formulas from one location to another in a worksheet or workbook.

Relative cell references change when copied to reflect the new location of the formula. TheĀ name relative comes from the fact that they change relative to their location when copied. This is usually a good thing, and it is why relative cell references are the default type of reference used in formulas.

At times, cell references need to stay static when formulas are copied. Copying formulas is the other major use of an absolute reference such as =$A$2+$A$4. The values in those references don't change when you copy them.

At other times, you may want part of a cell reference to change, such as the column letter, while having the row number stay static or vice versa when you copy the formula. In this case, you'll use a mixed cell reference such as =$A2+A$4. Whichever part of the reference has a dollar sign attached to it stays static, while the other part changes when copied.

So for $A2, when it is copied, the column letter is always A, but the row numbers change to $A3, $A4, $A5, and so on.

The decision to use the different cell references when creating the formula is based on the location of the data that the copied formulas will use.

Toggling Between Types of Cell References

The easiest way to change cell references from relative to absolute or mixed is to press the F4 key on the keyboard. To change existing cell references, Excel must be in edit mode, which you enter by double-clicking on a cell with the mouse pointer or by pressing the F2 key on the keyboard.

To convert relative cell references to absolute or mixed cell references:

  • Press F4 once to create a cell reference fully absolute, such as $A$6.
  • Press F4 a second time to create a mixed reference where the row number is absolute, such as A$6.
  • Press F4 a third time to create a mixed reference where the column letter is absolute, such as $A6.
  • Press F4 a fourth time to make the cell reference relative again, such as A6.