In this tutorial, we are going to shed some light on one of the most mysterious inhabitants of the Excel universe - the OFFSET function.
So, what is OFFSET in Excel? In a nutshell, the OFFSET formula returns a reference to a range that is offset from a starting cell or a range of cells by a specified number of rows and columns.
The OFFSET function may be a bit tricky to get, so let's go over a short technical explanation first (I'll do my best to keep it simple) and then we will cover a few of the most efficient ways to use OFFSET in Excel.
Excel OFFSET function - syntax and basic uses
The OFFSET function in Excel returns a cell or range of cells that is a given number of rows and columns from a given cell or range.
The syntax of the OFFSET function is as follows:
The first 3 arguments are required and the last 2 are optional. All of the arguments can be references to other cells or results returned by other formulas.
It looks like Microsoft made a good effort to put some meaning into the parameters' names, and they do give a hint at what you are supposed to specify in each.
- Reference - a cell or a range of adjacent cells from which you base the offset. You can think of it as the starting point.
- Rows - The number of rows to move from the starting point, up or down. If rows is a positive number, the formula moves below the starting reference, in case of a negative number it goes above the starting reference.
- Cols - The number of columns you want the formula to move from the starting point. As well as rows, cols can be positive (to the right of the starting reference) or negative (to the left of the starting reference).
- Height - the number of rows to return.
- Width - the number of columns to return.
Both the height and width arguments must always be positive numbers. If either is omitted, it defaults to the height or width of reference.
Note. OFFSET is a volatile function and and may slow down your worksheet. The slowness is directly proportional to the number of cells recalculated.
And now, let's illustrate the theory with an example of the simplest OFFSET formula.
Excel OFFSET formula example
Here is an example of a simple OFFSET formula that returns a cell reference based on a starting point, rows and cols that you specify:
The formula tells Excel to take cell A1 as the starting point (reference), then move 3 rows down (rows argument) and 1 column to the left (cols argument). As the result, this OFFSET formula returns the value in cell B4.
The image on the left shows the function's route and the screenshot on the right demonstrates how you can use the OFFSET formula on real-life data. The only difference between the two formulas is that the second one (on the right) includes a cell reference (E1) in the rows argument. But since cell E1 contains number 3, and exactly the same number appears in the rows argument of the first formula, both would return an identical result - the value in B4.
Excel OFFSET formulas - things to remember
- The OFFSET function is Excel doesn't actually move any cells or ranges, it just returns a reference.
- When an OFFSET formula returns a range of cells, the rows and cols arguments always refer to the upper-left cell in the returned rage.
- The reference argument must include a cell or range of adjacent cells, otherwise your formula will return the #VALUE! error.
- If the specified rows and/or cols move a reference over the edge of the spreadsheet, your Excel OFFSET formula will return the #REF! error.
- The OFFSET function can be used within any other Excel function that accepts a cell / range reference in its arguments.
For example, if you try to use the formula
OFFSET(A1,3,1,1,3) in pre-dynamic array Excel (2019 and lower), it will throw a #VALUE! error since a range to return (1 row, 3 columns) does not fit into a single cell. However, if you embed it into the SUM function, like this:
the formula will return the sum of values in a 1-row by 3-column range that is 3 rows below and 1 column to the right of cell A1, i.e. the total of values in cells B4:D4.
=SUM(OFFSET(INDIRECT(ADDRESS(ROW(), COLUMN())), 3, 1, 1, 3))
Why do I use OFFSET in Excel?
Now that you know what the OFFSET function does, you may be asking yourself "Why bother using it?" Why not simply write a direct reference like B4:D4?
The Excel OFFSET formula is very good for:
Creating dynamic ranges: References like B1:C4 are static, meaning they always refer to a given range. But some tasks are easier to perform with dynamic ranges. This is particularly the case when you work with changing data, e.g. you have a worksheet where a new row or column is added every week.
Getting the range from the starting cell. Sometimes, you may not know the actual address of the range, though you do know it starts from a certain cell. In such scenarios, using OFFSET in Excel is the right way to go.
How to use OFFSET function in Excel - formula examples
I hope you haven't get bored with that much of theory. Anyway, now we are getting to the most exciting part - practical uses of the OFFSET function.
Excel OFFSET and SUM functions
The example we discussed a moment ago demonstrates the simplest usage of OFFSET & SUM. Now, let's look at these functions at another angle and see what else they can do.
Example 1. A dynamic SUM / OFFSET formula
When working with continuously updated worksheets, you may want to have a SUM formula that automatically picks all newly added rows.
Suppose, you have the source data similar to what you see in the screenshot below. Every month a new row is added just above the SUM formula, and naturally, you want to have it included in the total. On the whole, there are two choices - either update the range in the SUM formula each time manually or have the OFFSET formula do this for you.
Since the first cell of the range to sum will be specified directly in the SUM formula, you only have to decide on the parameters for the Excel OFFSET function, which will get that last cell of the range:
Reference- the cell containing the total, B9 in our case.
Rows- the cell right above the total, which requires the negative number -1.
Cols- it's 0 because you don't want to change the column.
So, here goes the SUM / OFFSET formula pattern:
Tweaked for the above example, the formula looks as follows:
=SUM(B2:(OFFSET(B9, -1, 0)))
And as demonstrated in the below screenshot, it works flawlessly:
Example 2. Excel OFFSET formula to sum the last N rows
In the above example, suppose you want to know the amount of bonuses for the last N months rather than grand total. You also want the formula to automatically include any new rows you add to the sheet.
For this task, we are going to use Excel OFFSET in combination with the SUM and COUNT / COUNTA functions:
The following details can help you understand the formulas better:
Reference- the header of the column whose values you want to sum, cell B1 in this example.
Rows- to calculate the number of rows to offset, you use either the COUNT or COUNTA function.
COUNT returns the number of cells in column B that contain numbers, from which you subtract the last N months (the number is cell E1), and add 1.
If COUNTA is your function of choice, you don't need to add 1, since this function counts all non-empty cells, and a header row with a text value adds an extra cell that our formula needs. Please note that this formula will work correctly only on a similar table structure - one header row followed by rows with numbers. For different table layouts, you may need to make some adjustments in the OFFSET/COUNTA formula.
Cols- the number of columns to offset is zero (0).
Height- the number of rows to sum is specified in E1.
Width- 1 column.
Using OFFSET function with AVERAGE, MAX, MIN
In the same manner as we calculated the bonuses for the last N months, you can get an average of the last N days, weeks or years as well as find their maximum or minimum values. The only difference between the formulas is the first function's name:
The key benefit of these formulas over the usual AVERAGE(B5:B8) or MAX(B5:B8) is that you won't have to update the formula every time your source table gets updated. No matter how many new rows are added or deleted in your worksheet, the OFFSET formulas will always refer to the specified number of last (lower-most) cells in the column.
Excel OFFSET formula to create a dynamic range
Used in conjunction with COUNTA, the OFFSET function can help you make a dynamic range that may prove useful in many scenarios, for example to create automatically updatable drop-down lists.
The OFFSET formula for a dynamic range is as follows:
=OFFSET(Sheet_Name!$A$1, 0, 0, COUNTA(Sheet_Name!$A:$A), 1)
At the heart of this formula, you use the COUNTA function to get the number of non-blank cells in the target column. That number goes to the height argument of OFFSET instructing it how many rows to return.
Apart from that, it's a regular Offset formula, where:
- Reference is the starting point from which you base the offset, for example Sheet1!$A$1.
- Rows and
Colsare both 0 because there are no columns or rows to offset.
- Width is 1 column.
Note. If you are making a dynamic range in the current sheet, there is no need to include the sheet name in the references, Excel will do it for you automatically when creating the named range. Otherwise, be sure to include the sheet's name followed by the exclamation point like in this formula example.
Once you've created a dynamic named range with the above OFFSET formula, you can use Data Validation to make a dynamic dropdown menu that will update automatically as soon as you add or remove items from the source list.
For the detailed step-by-step guidance on creating drop-down lists in Excel, please check out the following tutorials:
Excel OFFSET & VLOOKUP
As everyone knows, simple vertical and horizontal lookups are performed with the VLOOKUP or HLOOKUP function, respectively. However, these functions have too many limitations and often stumble in more powerful and complex lookup formulas. So, in order to perform more sophisticated lookups in your Excel tables, you have to look for alternatives such as INDEX, MATCH and OFFSET.
Example 1. OFFSET formula for a left Vlookup in Excel
One of the most infamous limitations of the VLOOKUP function is inability to look at its left, meaning that VLOOKUP can only return a value to the right of the lookup column.
In our sample lookup table, there are two columns - month names (column A) and bonuses (column B). If you want to get a bonus for a certain month, this simple VLOOKUP formula will work without a hitch:
=VLOOKUP(B1, A5:B11, 2, FALSE)
However, as soon as you swap the columns in the lookup table, this will immediately result in the #N/A error:
To handle a left-side lookup, you need a more versatile function that does not really care where the return column resides. One of possible solutions is using a combination of INDEX and MATCH functions. Another approach is using OFFSET, MATCH and ROWS:
- Lookup_col_offset - is the number of columns to move from the starting point to the lookup column.
- Return_col_offset - is the number of columns to move from the starting point to the return column.
In our example, the lookup table is A5:B9 and the lookup value is in cell B1, the lookup column offset is 1 (because we are searching for the lookup value in the second column (B), we need to move 1 column to the right from the beginning of the table), the return column offset is 0 because we are returning values from the first column (A):
=OFFSET(A5:B9, MATCH(B1, OFFSET(A5:B9, 0, 1, ROWS(A5:B9), 1) ,0) -1, 0, 1, 1)
I know the formula looks a bit clumsy, but it does work :)
Example 2. How to do an upper lookup in Excel
As is the case with VLOOKUP being unable to look at the left, its horizontal counterpart - HLOOKUP function - cannot look upwards to return a value.
If you need to scan an upper row for matches, the OFFSET MATCH formula can help again, but this time you will have to enhance it with the COLUMNS function, like this:
- Lookup_row_offset - the number of rows to move from the starting point to the lookup row.
- Return_row_offset - the number of rows to move from the starting point to the return row.
Assuming that the lookup table is B4:F5 and the lookup value is in cell B1, the formula goes as follows:
=OFFSET(B4:F5, 0, MATCH(B1, OFFSET(B4:F5, 1, 0, 1, COLUMNS(B4:F5)), 0) -1, 1, 1)
In our case, the lookup row offset is 1 because our lookup range is 1 row down from the starting point, the return row offset is 0 because we are returning matches from the first row in the table.
Example 3. Two-way lookup (by column and row values)
Two-way lookup returns a value based on matches in both the rows and columns. And you can use the following double lookup array formula to find a value at the intersection of a certain row and column:
- The lookup table is A5:G9
- The value to match on the rows is in B2
- The value to match on the columns is in B1
You get the following two-dimensional lookup formula:
=OFFSET(A5:G9, MATCH(B2, OFFSET(A5:G9, 0, 0, ROWS(A5:G9), 1), 0)-1, MATCH(B1, OFFSET(A5:G9, 0, 0, 1, COLUMNS(A5:G9)), 0) -1)
It's not the easiest thing to remember, is it? In addition, this is an array formula, so don't forget to press Ctrl + Shift + Enter to enter it correctly.
Of course, this lengthy OFFSET formula is not the only possible way to do a double lookup in Excel. You can get the same result by using the VLOOKUP & MATCH functions, SUMPRODUCT, or INDEX & MATCH. There is even a formula-free way - to employ named ranges and the intersection operator (space). The following tutorial explains all alternative solutions in full detail: How to do two-way lookup in Excel.
OFFSET function - limitations and alternatives
Hopefully, the formula examples on this page have shed some light on how to use OFFSET in Excel. However, to efficiently leverage the function in your own workbooks, you should not only be knowledgeable of its strengths, but also be wary of its weaknesses.
The most critical limitations of the Excel OFFSET function are as follows:
- Like other volatile functions, OFFSET is a resource-hungry function. Whenever there is any change in the source data, your OFFSET formulas are recalculated, keeping Excel busy for a little longer. This is not an issue for a single formula in a small spreadsheet. But if there are dozens or hundreds of formulas in a workbook, Microsoft Excel may take quite a while to recalculate.
- Excel OFFSET formulas are hard to review. Because references returned by the OFFSET function are dynamic, big formulas (especially with nested OFFSETs) can be quite tricky to debug.
Alternatives to using OFFSET in Excel
As is often the case in Excel, the same result can be achieved in a number of different ways. So, here are three elegant alternatives to OFFSET.
- Excel tables
Since Excel 2002, we have a truly wonderful feature - fully-fledged Excel tables, as opposed to usual ranges. To make a table from structured data, you simply click Insert > Table on the Home tab or press Ctrl + T.
By entering a formula in one cell in an Excel table, you can create a so-called "calculated column" that automatically copies the formula to all other cells in that column and adjusts the formula for each row in the table.
Moreover, any formula that refers to a table's data automatically adjusts to include any new rows you add to the table or exclude the rows you delete. Technically, such formulas operate on table columns or rows, which are dynamic ranges in nature. Each table in a workbook has a unique name (the default ones are Table1, Table2, etc.) and you are free to rename your table via the Design tab > Properties group > Table Name text box.
The following screenshot demonstrates the SUM formula that refers to the Bonus column of Table3. Please pay attention that the formula includes the table's column name rather than a range of cells.
- Excel INDEX function
Although not exactly in the same way as OFFSET, Excel INDEX can also be used to create dynamic range references. Unlike OFFSET, the INDEX function is not volatile, so it won't slow down your Excel.
- Excel INDIRECT function
Using the INDIRECT function you can create dynamic range references from many sources such as cell values, cell values and text, named ranges. It can also dynamically refer to another Excel sheet or workbook. You can find all these formula examples in our Excel INDIRECT function tutorial.
Do you remember the question asked at the beginning of this tutorial - What is OFFSET in Excel? I hope now you know the answer : ) If you want some more hands-on experience, feel free to download our practice workbook (please see below) containing all the formulas discussed on this page and reverse engineer them for deeper understanding. Thank you for reading!
Practice workbook for download
OFFSET formula examples (.xlsx file)