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

Using Callouts

If you want to put comments in your document, you can use Word's built-in comment feature. Another way is to use callout ...

Discover More

Working with Elapsed Time

Work with times in a worksheet and you will eventually want to start working with elapsed times. Here's an explanation of ...

Discover More

Copying Print Areas when Copying Worksheets

Print areas are a great way to define what, exactly, you want to print from a worksheet. When you copy worksheets, the print ...

Discover More

Solve Real Business Problems Master business modeling and analysis techniques with Excel and transform data into bottom-line results. This hands-on, scenario-focused guide shows you how to use the latest Excel tools to integrate data from multiple tables. Check out Microsoft Excel 2013 Data Analysis and Business Modeling today!

More ExcelTips (menu)

Countering Compressed Columns

If you open a workbook and find that the width of some of your columns has been changed, the discovery can be frustrating. ...

Discover More

Unhiding Columns that are Persistently Hidden

If you were trying to format a worksheet and nothing you did could make the first two columns appear, would you be ...

Discover More

Unhiding a Single Column

In a worksheet with lots of hidden columns it is a real pain to try to unhide just one or two columns. The best solution is ...

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

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. Maximum image size is 6Mpixels. 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 4 + 1?

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


This Site

Got a version of Excel that uses the menu interface (Excel 97, Excel 2000, Excel 2002, or Excel 2003)? This site is for you! If you use a later version of Excel, visit our ExcelTips site focusing on the ribbon interface.

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.