What Is a Spreadsheet Cell?

Work with spreadsheet cells in Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets

Notebook covering up financial data

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A cell is the storage unit in a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. Cells are the boxes in a spreadsheet that may contain data. The cells in a spreadsheet are organized within a column and row in the worksheet, and can be formatted for aesthetics or visibility.

Instructions in this article apply to Excel 2019, 2016, 2013, 2010; Excel for Office 365; Excel Online; Excel for Mac; and Google Sheets.

Spreadsheet Cell Types

Cells hold four types of information (also called data types):

  • Numbers that can include formulas, dates, and times.
  • Text, often referred to as text strings or just strings.
  • Boolean values of TRUE or FALSE.
  • Errors including #NULL!, #REF!, and #DIV/0! that indicate a problem.

What Are Cell References?

Cell referencing is a system that identifies data and gives it an address so that data can be located in a spreadsheet. A cell reference is used in spreadsheets to identify individual cells and is a combination of the column letter and row number where it is located.

Screenshot of a spreadsheet showing a cell's reference point

To write a cell reference, start with the column letter and end with the row number, such as A14 or BB329. In the image above, the word Household is located in cell F1 and the highlighted cell is G7.

Cell references are used in formulas to reference other cells. For example, instead of entering the number $360 into a formula found in cell D1, enter a reference to cell G5. When a cell reference is used, if the data in cell G5 changes, the formula in cell D1 also changes.

Cells Can Be Formatted

By default, all cells in a worksheet use the same formatting, but this makes large worksheets containing lots of data difficult to read. Formatting a worksheet draws attention to specific sections and makes data easier to read and understand.

Cell formatting involves making changes to the cell, such as changing the background color, adding borders, or aligning the data in the cell. In contrast, number formatting deals with the way numbers in the cells are displayed, for example, to reflect a currency or percent.

Displayed vs. Stored Numbers

In both Excel and Google Sheets, when number formats are applied, the number that displays in the cell may differ from the number that is stored in the cell and used in calculations.

When formatting changes are made to numbers in a cell, those changes affect the appearance of the number and not the number itself.

For example, if the number 5.6789 in a cell is formatted to display only two decimal places (two digits to the right of the decimal), the cell displays the number as 5.68 due to rounding of the third digit.

Calculations and Formatted Numbers

When using formatted cells of data in calculations, the entire number, in this case, 5.6789, is used in all calculations, not the rounded number appearing in the cell.

How to Add More Cells to a Worksheet

A worksheet has an unlimited number of cells, so you don't need to add more to the sheet. But, you can add data inside the spreadsheet by adding a cell or group of cells between other cells.

To add a cell to a worksheet:

  1. Right-click or tap-and-hold the cell location where you want to add a cell.

  2. In Google Sheets, select Insert cells, then choose Shift right or Shift down. This moves every cell in that direction one space and inserts a blank cell in the selected area.

    Shift right/Shift down

    In Excel, choose Insert, then choose either Shift cells right, Shift cells down, Entire row, or Entire column. Select OK to insert the cell.

    Insert options for Excel

    If you select more than one cell, the program inserts that many cells into the worksheet. For example, highlight one cell to insert just one cell or highlight five cells to add five cells to that location.

  3. The cells move and blank cells are inserted.

Delete Cells and Cell Contents

Individual cells and their contents can be deleted from a worksheet. When this happens, cells and their data from either below or to the right of the deleted cell move to fill the gap.

  1. Highlight one or more cells to be deleted.

  2. Right-click the selected cells and choose Delete.

  3. In Excel, choose either Shift cells left or Shift cells up, then select OK. The menu shown here is one way to remove rows and columns.

    Delete options in Excel

    In Google Sheets, choose Shift left or Shift up.

    Delete options in Google Sheets
  4. The cells and the corresponding data are removed.

To delete the contents of one or more cells without deleting the cell, highlight the cells and press Delete.