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Microsoft Excel: Understanding the Basics 
 
by Keith Johnson June 21, 2005

Microsoft Excel is the most popular spreadsheet program on the market. This article will teach you what you need to know to start using this extraordinary application.

If you haven’t used Microsoft Excel before, then you haven't used one of the most valuable tools for storing, manipulating, and analyzing data. And don’t think you need to be a number-crunching CPA with computer programming skills to take advantage of this spreadsheet program’s powerful capabilities. Anyone can learn to use Excel like a pro.

Spreadsheet Basics

A spreadsheet is a grid of intersecting rows and columns, with each intersection creating a small rectangle called a cell. A cell is where you place information. And Excel has plenty of them—16,777,216 to be exact.

When you open an Excel spreadsheet, you’ll notice that columns are assigned letters, and rows are assigned numbers. This is important because a cell’s position is referenced by its column/row designation. For example, the cell in the first column of the first row is referred to as A1. Similarly, the cell in the second column of the first row is referred to as B1, and so on. Therefore, if you want to access that cell in the 345th row of the 10th column, you would refer to it as J345.

Often, you’ll want to work with a group of two or more cells at a time. In Excel, this is known as a range. And ranges can be different sizes, too. They can be as large as all of the cells in your spreadsheet (16,777,216, remember?), or as small as a couple of cells.

To reference a specific range, place a colon between the column/row designation of the first and last cells in the range. For example, a range consisting of all cells between A12 and G78 would be referred to as A12:G78.

Moving Around

There’s plenty of real estate to cover in a spreadsheet, so it shouldn’t surprise you that Excel has several ways to move from one cell to another.

A scroll bar is a strip that helps you navigate from screen to screen. Each bar has tiny arrows on both ends pointing in opposite directions. To move in that direction, just click on the arrow until you reach your destination. An Excel spreadsheet has two scroll bars: a horizontal one (on the bottom) for moving left or right, and a vertical one (on the right) for moving up or down.

Of course, feel free to use the arrow keys on your keyboard to travel up, down, left, and right one cell at a time. But to really race through a spreadsheet, try these keys:

  • [Home] – Moves to first cell in current row.
  • [Ctrl] and [Home] – Moves to first cell in first row (A1).
  • [Page Up] or [PgUp] – Moves up one screen at a time.
  • [Page Down] or [PgDn] – Moves down one screen at a time.

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