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Understanding Column Widths

You may have noticed that Excel uses a strange way to specify column widths. Next time you open a new workbook, take a look at the widths of your columns. Have you ever wondered how Excel comes up with widths such as "8.43?"

The answer lies rooted in history somewhere. The default column width is specified as a number of characters. Thus, "8.43" as a column width means that 8.43 characters--in the default font--can fit within the width of the column.

This used to mean something very understandable in the "olden days" before proportional fonts came on the scene. When monospace fonts ruled the computer world, you knew that there were either 10 or 12 characters per inch. VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet program) and Lotus 1-2-3 (the first gangbusters program for the IBM PC) both allowed you to specify column widths as a number of characters. MultiPlan (the ancestor to Excel) followed the same practice, and that practice carries forward to this day.

A good way to test this is to look at how many digits you can get in a column, since each digit is the same width as any other digit in a given font. If the column width is 8.43, then you can get 8 digits (12345678) in the cell without Excel making it wider or changing to scientific notation.

If you want to find out the default font being used by Excel--and thus on which the column widths are based--then choose Options from the Tools menu and click on the General tab. The default font specification is indicated and may be changed on this tab.

ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (2121) applies to Microsoft Excel 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003.

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