This tutorial explains the most common mistakes when making formulas in Excel, and how to fix a formula that is not calculating or not updating automatically.
Can someone imagine using Microsoft Excel without formulas? I believe no one can. And hardly anything could compare to the frustration caused by Excel formulas stop working all of a sudden. When this happens, a bunch of questions immediately flash across your mind. Why is my Excel formula not calculating? Why doesn't this formula update its value automatically? Is my Excel corrupt or is this due to some malicious virus? And how do I get my Excel to calculate and update formulas automatically again? Don't worry, most likely your Excel is all right, and you will get all the answers in a moment.
Excel formulas not working
Symptoms: Excel formula not working correctly, it returns an error or a wrong result.
This section provides a summary of the most common mistakes people make when creating formulas in Excel and solutions to fix them.
1. Match all opening and closing parentheses in a formula
As you know, the arguments of Excel functions are entered within the parentheses. In complex formulas, you may need to enter more than one set of parentheses, one within another, to indicate the order in which the calculations should take place. When creating such a formula, be sure to pair the parentheses properly so that you always have a right parenthesis for every left parenthesis in your formula.
Microsoft Excel displays the parentheses pairs in different colors as you enter them in a formula. If your formula is short of one or more parentheses, Excel displays an error message and suggests a correction to balance the pairs. Please see How to highlight and match parenthesis pairs for more information.
2. Enter all required arguments in an Excel function
All Excel functions have one or more required arguments. Some functions also have optional arguments, which are enclosed in [square brackets] in the formula's syntax.
A formula must contain all of the required arguments, otherwise Excel displays "You've entered too few arguments for this function" alert.
If you have entered more arguments than allowed by the formula's syntax, you will get "You've entered too many arguments for this function" error message.
3. Do not nest more than 64 functions in a formula
When nesting two or more Excel functions into each other, e.g. creating a nested IF formula, remember about the following limitations:
- In Excel 2016, Excel 2013, Excel 2010 and Excel 2007, you can use up to 64 nested functions.
- In Excel 2003 and lower, only up to 7 nested functions can be used.
4. Don't enclose numbers in double quotes
In Excel formulas, any value enclosed in double quotes is interpreted as a text string.
What it means is that if you enter a formula like
=IF(A1>0, "1"), Excel will treat number 1 as text, and therefore you won't be able to use the returned 1's in other calculations. To fix this, just remove the double quotes around "1":
So, whenever you are writing a formula for numerical values, follow this simple rule: don't enclose numbers in double quotes unless you want them to be treated as text.
5. Enter numbers without any formatting
When using a number in an Excel formula, don't add any decimal separator or currency sign like $ or €.
Remember that in Excel formulas, a comma is typically used to separate a function's arguments, and the dollar sign makes an absolute cell reference.
For instance, instead of entering $50,000 in your formula, input simply 50000, and use the Format Cells dialog (Ctrl + 1) to format the output to your liking.
6. Make sure numbers are not formatted as text values
Numbers formatted as text values are another common reason for Excel formulas not working. At first sight, they look like normal numbers, but Microsoft Excel perceives them as text strings and leaves out of calculations.
The visual indicators of text-numbers are as follows:
- Numbers formatted as text are left-aligned by default, while normal numbers are right-aligned in cells.
- The Number Format box on the Home tab in the Number group displays the Text format.
- When several cells with text numbers are selected on the sheet, the Status Bar only shows Count, while usually it shows Average, Count and SUM for numbers.
- There may be a leading apostrophe visible in the formula bar, or green triangles appear in the top-left corner of the cells.
The below screenshot shows that even a simple Excel SUM formula may not work because of numbers formatted as text:
To fix this, select all problematic cells, click the warning sign, and then click Convert to Number:
In some cases, however, neither green triangles nor the warning sign appear in cells. For example, if you enclose numeric values in double quotes in your formulas, Excel assumes you want to output a text string rather than a number.
At first sight, the following formula appears to be working fine:
=IF(A1="Good", "1", "0")
But the problem is the returned 1's and 0's are text values, not numbers! And if you reference any cells with the above formula in other formulas, those cells won't be included in calculations. As soon as you remove "" surrounding 1 and 0 in the above formula, Excel will treat the outputs as numbers and they will be calculated correctly.
If the small green triangles do not appear in cells for some other reason, look at the Number Format box on the Home tab in the Number group. If it displays Text, try clearing all formatting for the problematic cells, and set the cells' format to Number or General. If that doesn't work, you might have to create a new column, manually input the data (e.g. copy your text-numbers to Notepad, and then back to a new column), and delete the broken column.
Another possible solution is to multiply the values in the problematic column by 1 using a simple formula like
=A1*1. And then, copy the formula cells and paste them as values in the same or in any other column via Paste Special > Values.
7. Separate function arguments with a proper character
Most of us are used to separating function arguments with commas. However, this does not work for everyone's Excel. The character you use to separate arguments depends on the List Separator set in your Regional Settings.
Comma is the default list separator in North America and some other countries. In European countries, comma is used as the decimal symbol and the list separator is usually set to semicolon.
For example, in North America you would write
=IF(A1>0, "OK", "Not OK"), while European users of Excel should put the same formula as
=IF(A1>0; "OK"; "Not OK").
So, if your Excel formulas are not working because of "We found a problem with this formula..." error, go to your Regional Settings (Control Panel > Region and Language > Additional Settings) and check what character is set as List Separator there. And then, use exactly that character to separate arguments in your Excel formulas.
8. Enclose workbook and worksheet names in single quotes
When referring to other worksheets or workbooks that have spaces or non-alphabetical characters in their names, enclose the names in 'single quotation marks'. For example,
Reference to another sheet:
Reference to another workbook:
=SUM('[2015 Sales.xlsx]Jan sales'!B2:B10)
For more information, please see How to refer to another sheet or workbook in Excel.
9. Include the full path to a closed workbook
If you are writing a formula that references a closed Excel workbook, your external reference must include the workbook name and entire path to the workbook. For example:
For more information, please see Creating a reference to another workbook.
If the above tips do not help, try to evaluate and debug each part of your formula individually by using the F9 key and other debugging techniques explained in the following tutorial: How to evaluate and debug formulas in Excel.
Excel formulas not updating
Symptoms: The value returned by your Excel formula does not update automatically, i.e. the formula continues to show the old value even after you've changed the values of the dependent cells.
When Excel formulas are not updating automatically, most likely it's because the Calculation setting has been changed to Manual instead of Automatic. To fix this, just set the Calculation option to Automatic again.
On the Excel ribbon, go to the Formulas tab > Calculation group, click the Calculation Options button, and select Automatic:
Alternatively, you can change this setting in Excel Options:
- In Excel 2003, click Tools > Options > Calculation > Calculation > Automatic.
- In Excel 2007, click Office button > Excel options > Formulas > Workbook Calculation > Automatic.
- In Excel 2010, Excel 2013, and Excel 2016, go to File > Options > Formulas > Calculation options section, and select Automatic under Workbook Calculation.
How to force Excel formulas to recalculate
If for some reason, you need to have the Calculation option set to Manual, you can force the formulas to recalculate by clicking the Calculate button on the ribbon or by using one of the following shortcuts:
To recalculate the entire workbook:
- Press F9, or
- Click the Calculate Now button on the Formulas tab > Calculation group.
To recalculate an active sheet:
- Press Shift + F9, or
- Click Calculate Sheet on the Formulas tab > Calculation group.
To recalculate all sheets in all open workbooks, press Ctrl + Alt + F9.
If you need to recalculate only one formula on a sheet, select the formula cell, enter the editing mode either by pressing F2 or double clicking the cell, and then press the Enter key.
Excel formulas not calculating
Symptoms: A cell displays the formula, not the result.
If your Excel formula is not working because a cell displays the function instead of the calculated value, it's because one of the following reasons.
1. Show Formulas mode is turned on
The most common reason for an Excel formula not calculating is that you have inadvertently activated the Show Formulas mode in a worksheet.
To get the formula to display the calculated result, just turn off the Show Formulas mode by doing one of the following:
- Pressing the Ctrl + ` shortcut, or
- Clicking the Show Formulas button on the Formulas tab > Formula Auditing group.
2. A formula is entered as text
Another frequent reason for your Excel formula not calculating is that the formula has been formatted as text. To check this, select the formula cell, and look at the Number Format box in the Number group on the Home tab:
If it is the case, change the cell format to General, and while in the cell press F2 and Enter for the formula to recalculate and display the calculated value.
3. A formula cell has a leading space or apostrophe before the equal sign
If you have inadvertently entered a space or apostrophe (') before the equal sign, Excel treats the cell contents as text, and consequently does not evaluate any formula within that cell (a leading space often appears when you copy a formula from the web). To fix this, just remove the leading space or single quote.
This is how you deal with formulas not working in Excel. If you know any other solutions to fix formulas not updating or not calculating, please do share in comments. I thank you for reading and hope to see you on our blog next week.