What is a Spreadsheet Cell?

Notebook covering up financial spreadsheet
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A cell is the most basic storage unit available in a spreadsheet program such as Excel or Google Spreadsheet. Data entered into a spreadsheet program is always stored in a cell.

Onscreen, a cell appears as a box-like structure and each one is located at the intersection point of a vertical column and a horizontal row in a worksheet.

With over 16,000 columns and more than 1 million rows per worksheet, there are more than 17 billion cells per worksheet in Excel. Google Spreadsheets are somewhat smaller with only about 400,000 cells per worksheet.​

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Spreadsheet Cell Types

Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet showing different cell types

As mentioned above, cells are used to store data and they are also used to display data — usually with columns and rows of related data grouped together to form tables. Cells can 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 — Such as #NULL!, #REF!, and #DIV/0!, which are generated by the program when it encounters a problem with the data in a cell.

Cells containing formulas are the heart of spreadsheet programs since it is these calculations that 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.

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Cell References

Screenshot of a spreadsheet showing a cell's reference point

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.

The system used in modern spreadsheets are cell references, which 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 such as A1B12, or AA2345.

Cell references act as placeholders when they are used in such things as formulas and charts; their presence makes it easy to update these formulas and charts since whatever data is present in the cell it is automatically entered into the appropriate place in the formula or chart.

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Cell Formatting

Screenshot showing different cell formatting

All cells in a worksheet use the same formatting by default, which makes large worksheets containing a lot of data difficult to read. Adding formatting to different areas of a worksheet can draw attention to specific sections and make 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.

Displayed vs. Stored Numbers

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

Note: 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 was formatted to display only two decimal places (two digits to the right of the decimal), the cell would display the number as 5.68 due to rounding of the third digit.

Calculations and Formatted Numbers

When it comes to using such formatted cells of data in calculations, however, the entire number, in this case, 5.6789, would be used in all calculations, not the rounded number appearing in the cell.

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Adding and Deleting Cells in Excel

Screenshot showing how to insert a cell in Excel

When individual cells are added to a worksheet, the existing cells and their data are moved either down or to the right to make room for the new cell. Cells can be added

  • With keyboard shortcut keys
  • By right-clicking with the mouse
  • By using the Insert option on the Home tab of the ribbon

Tip: To add more than one cell at a time, select multiple cells as the first step in the methods below.

Inserting Cells with Shortcut Keys

The keyboard key combination for inserting cells into a worksheet is:

Ctrl ​+ Shift + "+" (plus sign)

Note: If you have a keyboard with a Number Pad to the right of the regular keyboard, you can use the + sign there without the Shift key. Thus the key combination becomes:

Ctrl + "+" (plus sign)

Inserting Cells with the Mouse

  1. Right click on the cell where the new cell is to be added to open the context menu.
  2. In the menu, click on Insert.
  3. Choose to have the surrounding cells shift down or to the right to make room for the new cell.

Tip: Alternatively, the Insert option can be opened via the Insert icon on the Home tab.

Deleting 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 will 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. In the menu, click on Delete.
  4. Choose to have the cells shift up or from the left to replace the deleted ones.

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 the Delete key on the keyboard.

Note: The Backspace key can be used to delete the contents of only one cell at a time. In doing so, it places Excel in Edit mode.

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Adding and Deleting Cells in Google Sheets

Screenshot of a Google Sheet showing how to insert a cell

Inserting Cells with the Mouse

  1. Right click on the cell where the new cell is to be added to open the context menu.
  2. In the menu, click on Insert Cells.
  3. Choose to have the surrounding cells shift down or to the right to make room for the new cell.

Tip: Alternatively, the Insert option can be opened via the Insert menu or it can be called up with the following hotkey:

Crtl + Alt + Shift + =

Note: If you have a keyboard with a Number Pad to the right of the regular keyboard, you can use the + sign there without the Shift key. Thus the key combination becomes:

Ctrl + "+" (plus sign)

Deleting 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 will 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. In the menu, click on Delete Cells.
  4. Choose to have the cells shift up or from the left to replace the deleted ones.

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 the Delete key on the keyboard.

Note: The Backspace key can be used to delete the contents of only one cell at a time.