Understanding Column Widths

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated May 7, 2016)

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.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He  is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

MORE FROM ALLEN

Determining an ANSI Value in a Macro

Need to know the character code used for a particular character? In a macro you can use the Asc function to determine the ...

Discover More

Automatic Lines for Dividing Lists

When preparing a report for others to use, it is not unusual to add a horizontal line between major sections of the report. ...

Discover More

Making Draft View the Default View

Word normally uses Print Layout view to display your documents. You may want, instead, to always use Draft view. Here's how ...

Discover More

Program Successfully in Excel! John Walkenbach's name is synonymous with excellence in deciphering complex technical topics. With this comprehensive guide, "Mr. Spreadsheet" shows how to maximize your Excel experience using professional spreadsheet application development tips from his own personal bookshelf. Check out Excel 2013 Power Programming with VBA today!

MORE EXCELTIPS (MENU)

Hiding and Unhiding Columns

Want to hide a column so it doesn't appear in the worksheet? It's easy to do using the formatting capabilities of Excel.

Discover More

Centering Across Columns

Have a heading you need centered across a few columns? It's easy to do using the tool described in this tip.

Discover More

Changing Column Width

When creating a worksheet, you often need to adjust the width of columns so your data looks great. Here's how to quickly and ...

Discover More
Subscribe

FREE SERVICE: Get tips like this every week in ExcelTips, a free productivity newsletter. Enter your address and click "Subscribe."

View most recent newsletter.

Comments for this tip:

If you would like to add an image to your comment (not an avatar, but an image to help in making the point of your comment), include the characters [{fig}] in your comment text. You’ll be prompted to upload your image when you submit the comment. Images larger than 600px wide or 1000px tall will be reduced. Up to three images may be included in a comment. All images are subject to review. Commenting privileges may be curtailed if inappropriate images are posted.

What is 7 + 8?

There are currently no comments for this tip. (Be the first to leave your comment—just use the simple form above!)


Newest Tips
Subscribe

FREE SERVICE: Get tips like this every week in ExcelTips, a free productivity newsletter. Enter your address and click "Subscribe."

(Your e-mail address is not shared with anyone, ever.)

View the most recent newsletter.

Links and Sharing
Share