Excel Cell References

When writing Excel formulas, you’ll definitely be making references to other cells¬†(like =SUM(A1:A3)). If you haven’t heard of absolute cell references and relative cell references, you’re going to want to read on, because this knowledge can save your life! (nah, it probably won’t ūüôā but it¬†will save you a lot of headaches!)

I touched on cell references¬†previously, however¬†in this post¬†I would like to go further in-depth on the subject.¬†In this post, we’ll be talking about:

  • What are cell references?
  • Relative cell references
  • Absolute cell references
  • Keyboard shortcut to toggle between¬†absolute and relative references

What are cell references?

Let’s get a base of what cell references actually are. A cell reference is an area on your worksheet that you are referring to in your formulas. For example, if you have a simple SUM() formula like this:

=SUM(B2:C5)

Then B2:C5 is referencing the cells in the worksheet from B2 (top-left-most cell) to C5 (bottom-right-most cell). When editing your formula, the cell reference will be outlined in a specific color. In this example, it’s shown in blue.

Creating a cell reference

The cell reference in this case is B2:C5.

OK, now that we have that basic understanding, let’s look at what relative references and absolute references are.

Relative Cell References

Relative cell references basically means that if you were to copy and paste a formula that had relative references in it, then the formula’s references would change, relative to where you copied from.

For example, if we had a formula in cell B6 like:

=SUM(B2:B5)

And then we copied that formula to cell C6, the formula would change to:

=SUM(C2:C5)

Here’s an animated example:

Understanding Cell References - Copying Formulas

The format of relative cell references is:

[Cell Column Reference][Cell Row Reference] (i.e. B2)

However, absolute cell references have some extra formatting. Let’s look into that and see what’s going on.

Absolute Cell References

Let’s start by showing the format of absolute cell references. Going back to our previous example, if we set the formula in cell B6 to be:

=SUM($B2:$B5)

The difference is with the dollar sign $. This is a special character for Excel formulas which will “lock” the cell reference that you are referring to. Here is the format:

$[Cell Column Reference]$[Cell Row Reference] (i.e. $B$2)

Notice that I put a dollar sign $ in front of both the column reference as well as the row reference. This is because you can lock either the column reference, the row reference, or both.

What do you mean by “lock the reference”?

It’s easiest to show you with an example. Let’s go back to our example and say that B6 contains this formula:

=SUM($B2:$B5)

And then we’ll copy and paste cell B6 to C6 and let’s see what happens to the formula in C6.

Absolute Cell References - Copying a formula

The value in C6 is the same as in B6, so what’s going on here?

Because the formula had $ in front of the column reference, then what happens is that the column’s reference is¬†absolute, meaning that it will not change relative to where you pasted to, as shown above.

However, we¬†didn’t lock the row reference, so what would happen if we¬†copied C6 to C7?

Absolute Cell References - Copying a formula part 2

The rows have adjusted in the formula in C7. Notice that they have adjusted one row down, which is one row relative to where you copied the formula from. So, we copied the cell C6 and pasted one row down to C7, where the row references have adjusted themselves to move one row down along with you (hence, making them the relative references).

Now, you can make whatever column / row reference absolute or relative. You can even mix and match them if you like (and sometimes, it is helpful to do so in some formulas). Let me illustrate this for you with one more example.

Let’s change the formula in cell B6 to be:

=SUM($B2:B$5)

So, the top-left cell reference is locking the column, and the bottom-right cell reference is locking the row. What do you think will happen if we copy and paste this formula one column to the right and one row down to cell C7?

Mixed References Example

The formula in C7 changed into:

=SUM($B3:C$5)

What happened?

When we copy and pasted one column to the right and one row down, the top-left cell reference of $B2 locked the column, but not the row. So the column stayed absolutely as column B, but the row changed relatively to row 3. Similarly, the bottom-right cell reference that was B$5 changed to C$5 because the column was a relative reference and so moved relatively one column to the right, while the row absolutely stayed at 5.

I know it’s a bit confusing at first, but try making some examples of your own and play around with it for a bit to get used to it.

Keyboard shortcut to toggle between absolute and relative references

A nice trick that you can use is the F4 key on your keyboard to cycle through different reference modes in your formula.

 The reference mode cycle goes like this (each time you press F4):

  1. Rows and columns are relative
  2. Rows and columns are absolute
  3. Rows are absolute, columns are relative
  4. Rows are relative, columns are absolute

If we go back to our simple formula of:

=SUM(B2:B5)

And if we edit the formula in the formula bar, we can highlight the top-left cell reference, the bottom-right cell reference, or both cell references and toggle through the different reference modes (absolute or relative) with the F4 key. Here’s an illustration to make it a little more clear (NOTE: each¬†time you see the cell reference changing, I’m pressing F4 on my keyboard):

Keyboard shortcut F4 example

I hope you have found this information useful. Please comment below if you have any questions or tips you’d like to share!

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  • Lisa

    Nice trick with the F4 key! I have been using cell references for years, but I didn’t know about the F4 key toggle shorcut! Always learning something useful from your posts, thank you!