Introducing array formulas in Excel

Power User Corner

 By Colin Wilcox
 and John Walkenbach

So, you want to become a real Excel power user? In that case, you need to know how to use array formulas. Array formulas enable you to perform calculations that you can't do with the standard Excel functions. This is part one of a two-column series.

Applies to
Microsoft Office Excel 2003
Excel 2002

If you have experience using formulas in Excel, you know that you can perform some fairly sophisticated operations. For example, you can calculate the total cost of a loan over any given number of years. However, if you really want to master formulas in Excel, you need to know how to use array formulas. You can use array formulas to do the seemingly impossible, such as:

  • Count the number of characters in a range of cells.
  • Sum numbers that meet certain conditions, such as the lowest values in a range or numbers that fall between an upper and lower boundary.
  • Sum every nth value in a range of values.

This column introduces array formulas and explains how to enter, edit, and troubleshoot them.

 Note   You may see array formulas referred to as "CSE formulas," because you press CTRL+SHIFT+ENTER to enter them into your workbooks. The only difference is the name.

A quick introduction to arrays and array formulas

If you've done even a little programming, you've probably run across the term array. For our purposes, an array is just a collection of items. In Excel, those items can reside in a single row (called a one-dimensional horizontal array), a column (a one-dimensional vertical array), or multiple rows and columns (a two-dimensional array). You can't create three-dimensional arrays or array formulas in Excel.

An array formula is a formula that can perform multiple calculations on one or more of the items in an array. Array formulas can return either multiple results or a single result. For example, you can place an array formula in a range of cells and calculate a column or row of subtotals. You can also place a formula in a single cell and calculate a single amount. An array formula that resides in multiple cells is called (logically enough) a multi-cell formula, and an array formula that resides in a single cell is called a single-cell formula.

The examples in the next section show you how to create multi-cell and single-cell array formulas.

Try it!

This exercise shows you how to use multi-cell and single-cell array formulas to calculate a set of sales figures. The first set of steps uses a multi-cell formula to calculate a set of subtotals. The second set uses a single-cell formula to calculate a grand total.

To create a multi-cell array formula
  1. Start Excel and open a new, blank workbook.
  2. Copy this table and then paste it into the new workbook starting at cell A1. Use the Paste Options button The Paste Options button to match the destination formatting.
Sales Person Car Type Number Sold Unit Price Total Sales
Barnhill Guzzler 5 2200  
  Belcher 4 1800  
Ingle Guzzler 6 2300  
  Belcher 8 1700  
Jordan Guzzler 3 2000  
  Belcher 1 1600  
Pike Guzzler 9 2150  
  Belcher 5 1950  
Sanchez Guzzler 6 2250  
  Belcher 8 2000  
  1. To multiply the values in the array (the cell range C2 through D11), select cells E2 through E11, and then enter the following formula in the formula bar:

=C2:C11*D2:D11

  1. Press CTRL+SHIFT+ENTER.

Excel surrounds the formula with braces ({ }) and places an instance of the formula in each cell of the selected range. This happens very quickly, so what you see in column E is the total sales amount for each car type for each sales person.

Worksheet with first array formula

To create a single-cell array formula
  1. In cell A13 of the workbook, type Total Sales.
  2. In cell B13, enter the following formula, and then press CTRL+SHIFT+ENTER:

=SUM(C2:C11*D2:D11)

In this case, Excel multiplies the values in the array (the cell range C2 through D11) and then uses the SUM function to add the totals together. The result is a grand total of $111,800 in sales. Do you see how powerful this type of formula can be? For example, say you have 15,000 rows of data. You can sum part or all of that data with a single formula in a single cell.

Also, notice that the single-cell formula is completely independent of the multi-cell formula. This points to another advantage of using array formulas — flexibility. You can take any number of actions, such as changing the formulas in column E or deleting that column altogether, without affecting the single-cell formula.

Array formulas also offer these advantages:

  • Consistency   If you click any of the cells from E2 downward, you see the same formula. That consistency can help ensure greater accuracy.
  • Safety   You cannot overwrite part of a multi-cell array formula. For example, click cell E3 and press DELETE. You have to either select the entire range of cells and change the formula for the entire array, or leave it as is.
  • Smaller file sizes   You can often use a single array formula instead of several intermediate formulas. For example, the workbook you created for this exercise uses two array formulas. If you had used standard formulas (such as =C2*D2), you would have used 11 different formulas.

A look at array formula syntax

For the most part, array formulas use standard formula syntax. They all begin with an equal sign, and you can use any of the built-in Excel functions in your array formulas. The key difference is that when using array formulas, you must press CTRL+SHIFT+ENTER to enter your formulas. When you do this, Excel surrounds your array formula with braces — and you cannot type the braces manually.

The next thing you need to understand is that array functions are a form of shorthand. For example, the multi-cell function that you used earlier is the equivalent of:

=C2*D2
=C3*D3

and so on. The single-cell formula condenses all of those multiplication operations, plus the arithmetic required to add those subtotals: =E2+E3+E4, and so on.

Rules for entering and changing array formulas

We've already harped on the primary rule, but we're doing it again: Press CTRL+SHIFT+ENTER whenever you need to enter or edit an array formula. That rule applies to both single-cell and multi-cell formulas.

Whenever you work with multi-cell formulas, you also need to follow these rules:

  • You must select the range of cells to hold your results before you enter the formula. You did this in step 3 of the multi-cell array formula exercise.
  • You can't change the contents of an individual cell in an array formula. To try this, select cell E3 in the sample workbook and press DELETE.
  • You can move or delete an entire array formula, but you can't move or delete part of it. In other words, to shrink an array formula, you first delete the existing formula, and start over.
  • You can't insert blank cells into a multi-cell array formula.

Expanding an array formula

At times, you may need to expand an array formula (don't forget, you can't shrink them). The process is not complicated, but you must remember the rules listed in the previous section.

  1. In the sample workbook, clear any text and single-cell formulas located below the main table.
  2. Paste these additional lines of data into the workbook starting at cell A12. Use the Paste Options button to match the destination formatting.
Teal Guzzler 6 2500
  Belcher 7 1900
Wang Guzzler 4 2200
  Belcher 3 2000
Young Guzzler 8 2300
  Belcher 8 2100
  1. Select the range of cells that contains the current array formula (E2:E11), plus the empty cells next to the new data (E12:E17).
  2. Press F2 to start edit mode.
  3. In the formula bar, change C11 to C17, change D11 to D17, and then press CTRL+SHIFT+ENTER . Excel places an instance of the formula in the new cells.

The workbook with an expanded formula

Disadvantages of using array formulas

Array formulas can work what seems like magic, but they also have some disadvantages:

  • You may forget to use CTRL+SHIFT+ENTER. Remember to press those keys whenever you enter or edit an array formula.
  • Other users may not understand your formulas. Array formulas are relatively undocumented, so if other people need to modify your workbooks, you should either avoid array formulas or make sure they understand how to change them.
  • Depending on the speed of your system, large array formulas can slow down calculations.

What's next

The next column, More Arrays: Introducing Array Constants in Excel, explains how to use a component of array formulas called array constants, a type of array that Excel stores in memory instead of a workbook. We don't usually publish all the columns in a series simultaneously, but we had a sneaking hunch that some of you ambitious types might want to work ahead.

More information


About the authors

  • John Walkenbach is an Excel Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and author of Excel 2002 Formulas, the book that provides the information for this set of columns. To learn more about John's other books, see his book page.
  • Colin Wilcox writes for the Office Help team. In addition to contributing to the Office Power User Corner column, Colin writes articles and tutorials for Microsoft Data Analyzer.