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Too Many Formats when Sorting

Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Excel versions: 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. If you are using a later version (Excel 2007 or later), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for later versions of Excel, click here: Too Many Formats when Sorting.

Debi is running into a problem when she tries to sort her worksheet. Instead of doing the sort, she gets a message that says "Too Many Different Cell Formats."

According to sources at Microsoft, this error occurs when your workbook gets close to exceeding one of the built-in limitations of Excel. A workbook can contain only about 4,000 "custom formats."

Custom formats are unique combinations of formatting attributes, applied to cells. For instance, let's say that you have two cells, both formatted for 10-pt. Arial type. Both use the same number format, and neither of them have borders applied. If you change the font size of one of the cells to 11-pt., then you now have two unique custom formats. If you copy the format of the 11-pt. cell to a third cell, you still have only two custom formats. But if you add a border to one of the 11-pt. cells, you now have three custom formats.

Basically, a custom format is any unique combination of things like typefaces, font sizes, colors, alignment, borders, or other cell attributes. If you have a workbook that has, say, 40 complex worksheets, then it is very possible to get close to the 4,000 custom-format limit.

There is only one way to correct the situation: Reduce the number of custom formats. Select a large block of cells in the workbook, and then choose Edit | Clear | Formats. If Excel won't let you do this even (perhaps you have put the workbook into an unstable state by having way too many custom formats), then you should copy the contents of your worksheets, one by one, to a new workbook. Make sure you use Edit | Paste Special | Formulas to do the pasting, so that your formulas are preserved and you don't copy formatting.

For further information on this topic, refer to the following Microsoft Knowledge Base article:


ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (2554) applies to Microsoft Excel 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. You can find a version of this tip for the ribbon interface of Excel (Excel 2007 and later) here: Too Many Formats when Sorting.

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