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Returning a Blank Value

The purpose of formulas is to return a value based upon a calculation or comparison. For instance, if you use the formula =1+1, the sum is calculated and the value 2 is returned. There might be times, however, when you want to use a formula and actually return nothing. For instance, you might want to compare a value in a cell to some constant and return a numeric value if they are equal or return nothing if they are different.

The problem is that a formula must, under all circumstances, return something—for it not to do so would go against the very purpose of formulas. There are two ways to approach the problem, and how you do so will affect what you can and cannot do with your results. Consider the following formula:


In this instance, the cell containing this will contain a blank value ("") if A1 is 0 or it will contain a numeric value (1) if it is not 0. In either case, something is being returned. You could, however, use the following variation on the formula:


The only difference here, of course, is that the quote marks have been removed. Interestingly enough, in this case Excel assumes there is a zero between the two consecutive commas, and if A1 is 0, the formula returns a 0. Again, formulas must return something.

The way that Excel's other functions interpret the results of these two formulas is also very interesting. It is instructive to look at how the COUNT, COUNTA, and COUNTBLANK functions interpret the results.

COUNT is used to count the number of cells in a range that contain numeric values. If the cells contain text, or if they are empty, they are ignored. In the case of our formulas, if you use the first formula, COUNT counts the cell if A1 is not zero. If you use the second formula, COUNT will always count the result, since it always returns either 0 or 1, which are both numeric.

COUNTA is used to count the number of cells in a range that contain anything. Regardless of which formula you use, COUNTA will count the cell since formulas always return something. (It can also be argued that COUNTA counts the cell because it contains a formula, but that is probably a fine semantic difference.)

COUNTBLANK examines cells and counts them only if they are blank. In the case of the first formula, COUNTBLANK will count the cell only if A1 is 0. In the case of the second formula, COUNTBLANK will never count the cell, since the formula always returns a 0 or 1 and is therefore never blank.

The above discussion applies if the COUNT, COUNTA, or COUNTBLANK functions are evaluating the results of a series of cells that actually contain formulas. However, if the range includes cells that are really blank (i.e., they contain nothing, not even a formula), then that can affect what is returned by the functions. Blank cells don't affect the results returned by either COUNT or COUNTA, but they do affect the results returned by COUNTBLANK.

What does all this mean? It means that a cell that contains a formula is never really, truly blank—only cells with nothing in them are blank. How the result of the formula is interpreted, however, depends on the Excel functions being used to perform the interpretation. Since different functions interpret formula results differently, you need to be concerned with what you really want to find out about the formula results, and then use the function that will help you best determine that information. If you don't get the result you expect with a particular function, search around—chances are good that Excel has a different function you can use to get the desired results.

That being said, if you have a range of cells that all contain formulas similar to =IF(A1=0,"",1), and you want to delete the formulas in the cells that return a blank value (""), you can quickly do so by following these steps:

  1. Select the range containing the formulas in question.
  2. Press F5. Excel displays the Go To dialog box. (See Figure 1.)
  3. Figure 1. The Go To dialog box.

  4. Click Special. Excel displays the Go To Special dialog box. (See Figure 2.)
  5. Figure 2. The Go To Special dialog box.

  6. Make sure the Formulas radio button is selected.
  7. The only check box that should be selected under Formulas is Text.
  8. Click OK. Excel selects all cells where the formula returned a text value. (This should be all the formulas that returned "".)
  9. Press Delete.

ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (2814) applies to Microsoft Excel 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003.

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Comments for this tip:

Laine    07 Jul 2014, 04:15
This is driving me mad but I suspect it is a simple fix. EG. Cell D8=22.00. D9 is blank. E8=22.00. Formula in E9 is E8+D9. But if D9 is blank, I don't want the formula to display after I copy the formula down the page.
MORNE    23 Jun 2014, 01:32

L343 SW 1 194/014 12''
L343 SW 2 194/014 12''
SW 3 194/014 10''
L343 SW 4 194/014 10''
L390 SW 5 194/014 10''
SW 6 194/014 10''
SW 7 194/014 12''
L419 SW 8 194/014 12''
L419 SW 9 194/014 12''
Rob    14 Oct 2013, 19:15
There are two problems with COUNTA - firstly, the Excel documentation says it counts non-blank cells. However, the definition of 'blank' here is different than the definition used by ISBLANK or COUNTBLANK, both of which treat "" as blank. So you get the unexpected result that COUNT(range) may or may not = COUNTA(range) + COUNTBLANK(range).

Secondly, in terms of the various solutions which involves locating 'blank' cells and clearing them in order that COUNTA will give the desired answer, these are not helpful when the 'blank' result is the result of a formula, since this will then clear the formula from the cell.
Amanda P    08 Oct 2013, 20:43
Hi there,

In my specific situation, I am using a combo-box to filter data based on the value selected from the drop down. The problem I'm running into is that without being able to return a blank cell into the advanced filter criteria I am not able to undo the filter when selecting the blank cell in the dropdown menu. I'd like to be able to use the combobox to choose numbers 1-3 or to undo the sort. Any suggestions?

This is what my VBA looks like for the combo box so far...something is not working. I added the last bit in an effort to clear the cell, but that doesn't seem correct though it doesn't return an error:

Private Sub ComboBox1_Change()
'runs advanced filter based on combobox value'
Range("C31:DM98").AdvancedFilter Action:=xlFilterInPlace, CriteriaRange:= _
        Range("C4:DN5"), Unique:=False
    ActiveWindow.SmallScroll ToRight:=-86
'specifies if value is zero to clear filter'
For Each cell In [ComboBox1]
  If (cell.Value = 0) Then cell.ClearContents

End Sub

THANK YOU IN ADVANCE!!!! No one seems to know the answer.
Ben    29 Aug 2013, 14:34
In the case I just mentioned, you can instead return NA() for the formula and then search for Error only. This should work great for me. Thanks for the idea to use Go T
Ben    29 Aug 2013, 14:32
I like the idea, unfortunately it only works if your formula will only return numeric values. If your formula can return a numeric or text value, this will also highlight any valid text you want to keep.
James    20 Aug 2013, 13:27
thomas - you are a genious... no one else could help
Thomas Papavasiliou    31 Jul 2013, 15:54
I use a method where i intentionally create an error value as
and then with Goto, Special, formulas,errors box checked, I erase the cells containing the error value.
William Tretiak    31 Jul 2013, 07:53
I have this formula: =IF(COUNTIF(H2:X2:AB2:AJ2:AM2:AO2:AR2:AZ2:BD2:BP2:BU2:CQ2:CU2:DW2,"Y")=COUNTA(H2:X2:AB2:AJ2:AM2:AO2:AR2:AZ2:BD2:BP2:BU2:CQ2:CU2:DW2),"Y","N") The box this is in returns either a Y or an N depending on the selection in the cells, however it does no return a blank if all the ranged cells are blank.This needs to return a blank only when all cells in those ranges are blank. If even one of the cells has an entry I need it to return that value. Can you help?

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