What is a Spreadsheet Cell?

Notebook covering up financial data

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A cell is the most basic storage unit in a spreadsheet program such as Excel or Google Sheets. Data entered into a spreadsheet is stored in a cell. Onscreen, a cell appears as a box and each one is located at the intersection point of a vertical column and a horizontal row in a worksheet.

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

Spreadsheet Cell Types

Cells store data and also display data. Data is organized in columns and rows of related data that are grouped together to form tables. Cells hold four basic types of information (data types):

  • Numbers: Includes formulas, dates, and times.
  • Text: Often referred to as text strings or just strings.
  • Boolean (logical values): TRUE or FALSE values only.
  • Errors: #NULL!, #REF!, and #DIV/0! errors appear when there's a problem with the data in a cell.

Cells containing formulas are the heart of spreadsheet programs. These calculations simplify working with large amounts of data. Normally, cells display the formulas' results, but Excel's show formulas mode can be toggled on and off as needed to see the formula rather than the answer in a cell.

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.

Screenshot of a spreadsheet showing a cell's reference point

Cell references are used in spreadsheets to identify individual cells. Cell references are a combination of the column letter and row number of the cell's location. In these cell references, the column letter is always listed first (for example, A1, B12, or AA2345).

Cell references act as placeholders when used in formulas and charts. Their presence makes it easy to update formulas and charts because data in the cell is automatically entered into the appropriate place in the formula or chart.

Cell Formatting

All cells in a worksheet use the same formatting by default. This makes large worksheets containing a lot of data difficult to read. Adding formatting to different areas of a worksheet draws attention to specific sections and makes them easier to read and understand.

Cell formatting differs from Number formatting. Cell formatting involves changes to the cell itself such as changing cell background color, adding borders, or changing the alignment of data. Number formatting deals with the way numbers in cells are displayed such as currency, percent, or displaying negative numbers in red.

Screenshot showing different cell formatting

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.

Add Cells

To insert cells with the mouse, follow these steps:

  1. Right-click the cell where the new cell is to be added to open the context menu.

  2. Select Insert.

    A screenshot showing how to insert a cell in Excel
  3. Choose either Shift cells down or Shift cells right to make room for the new cell.

    A screenshot showing how to add a cell in Excel
  4. Select OK to insert the new cell.

Instead of using a context menu to insert a cell, select Home > Insert > Insert Cell. Or press Ctrl+Alt+Shift.

If you have a keyboard with a Number Pad to the right of the regular keyboard, use the + sign there without the Shift key. The key combination is Ctrl++.

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 on the selected cells to open the context menu.

  3. Select Delete.

  4. Choose either Shift cells left or Shift cells up.

  5. Select OK to delete the cells.

To delete the contents of one or more cells, without deleting the cell itself:

  1. Highlight the cells containing the content to be deleted.

  2. Press Delete.