What Is a Spreadsheet Cell?

Notebook covering up financial data

borisyankov/Getty Images

A cell is the most basic storage unit in a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. They're the boxes you see all over a blank document that's open in a spreadsheet program.

The cells in a spreadsheet store data, are organized within a column and row in the worksheet, and can be formatted for aesthetics or visibility.

The instructions below 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 basic types of information (data types):

  • Numbers that can include formulas, dates, and times
  • Text, often referred to as text strings or just strings
  • Boolean values TRUE or FALSE
  • Errors including #NULL!, #REF!, and #DIV/0! (when there's a problem with the cell data)

What Are Cell References?

Given the number of cells per worksheet, a system of identification or addressing is required so that data can be quickly and easily located when needed. This is called cell referencing.

Screenshot of a spreadsheet showing a cell's reference point

Cell references are used in spreadsheets to identify individual cells. A reference to a cell is simply a combination of the column letter and row number.

When you write a cell reference, it's common to 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 at cell F1, while the highlighted cell is G7.

Understanding how to use cell references is crucial when using formulas because that's when you'll actually reference other cells.

For example, in the image above, you could write into cell D1 the number $360 or you could reference cell G5. The idea here is that even if the data in G5 changes, your reference to it in D1 will reflect that.

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 various areas of a worksheet draws attention to specific sections and makes them easier to read and understand.

Cell formatting involves making changes to the cell itself, such as changing the cell's 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, like to reflect a currency or percent.

Displayed vs. Stored Numbers

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

When formatting changes are made to numbers in a cell, those changes only 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 basically unlimited cells, so while you don't technically need to add more to the sheet, you might need to shuffle them around by adding a cell or group of cells between other cells.

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

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

    Insert cells menu in Google Sheets

    In Excel, choose Insert and then pick from the pop-up menu: Shift cells right, Shift cells down, Entire row, Entire column. Select OK when you're ready to insert the cell.

    Excel Insert cells dialog box

    If you select more than one cell, the program will insert that many cells into the worksheet. For example, following these directions with one cell highlighted will insert just one cell, whereas highlighting five cells will add five more to that location.

  3. The cell(s) will move as you've directed them.

Delete Cells and Cell Contents

Individual cells and their contents can also 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, pick Shift cells left or Shift cells up, and then OK. The menu you see here is also one way to remove entire rows and columns.

    Delete prompt in Excel for removing cells

    In Google Sheets, choose Shift left and Shift up.

    Delete cells menu in Google Sheets
  4. The cells and their corresponding data is now removed.

To delete the contents of one or more cells without deleting the cell itself, highlight the cells containing the content to be deleted, and press Delete.