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Work with Formula Errors

Updated on September 10, 2010

It’s the sight you dread to see. That amazing formula that has been written to save hours of time and ensure accurate calculations is returning an error message. What can you do?

Well let’s look at some options available to you to troubleshoot your Excel formulas.

Understand Error Messages

When a formula goes wrong, the error message it returns is the first indicator to what the problem may be.

After a while you might get used to some of the more common formula errors, but initially do not trouble yourself with remembering what they mean. Just hover your mouse over the smart tag icon that appears next to the cell, and Excel will provide an explanation for the error message.

Explanation for the formula error message
Explanation for the formula error message

Some of the more common messages are;

#REF! – Occurs when a formula contains incorrect cell references. Common causes include moving data that is used within a formula, or moving a formula making the cell references incorrect.

#VALUE! - Occurs when the wrong type of argument is used. Common causes include entering text when the formula requires a number, or entering a range on cells when the formula requires a single cell reference

#NAME? – Occurs when Excel does not recognise text in a formula. Common causes include misspelling a range name, or referring to text in a formula and not enclosing it in double quotation marks.

#N/A – Occurs when a value is not available to a formula. Common causes include using VLOOKUP to search for a value that is not included in a table, or located in an unsorted table.

Solve the Formula Error

There are many tools provided by Excel to assist you with solving problems with your formulas. My personal favourites are;

Show Formulas

If there is a problem with one of your formulas, the best thing to start with is to show the formula in the cell. This will save the hassle of having to use the Formula bar to investigate.

To show formulas:

1. Click the Formulas tab on the Ribbon

2. Click the Show Formulas button in the Formula Auditing group

The formulas are shown. Now when you select the cell containing the error, Excel highlights the cells referenced in the formula using different colours thereby assisting your diagnosis.

Show formulas in an Excel worksheet
Show formulas in an Excel worksheet

Evaluate Formula

The Evaluate Formula feature of Excel does exactly what it says on the tin. It steps into your formula and walks through the arguments evaluating each result. When it reaches the problem, the error message will be displayed allowing you to identify the problematic function or argument.

1. Select the cell containing the error

2. Click the Formulas tab on the Ribbon

3. Click the Evaluate Formula button in the Formula Auditing group

Evaluate formula
Evaluate formula

Useful Excel Links

Software training videos

Online training videos for Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, JavaScript and much much more..

Microsoft Excel training

Online Microsoft Excel training guides and quizzes. Improve your existing skills and learn new Excel tips.


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      3 years ago

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