I generally give Excel a lot of credit for being an intuitive and easy to learn tool. However, writing criteria statements that link to cells is probably one of the most un-intuitive aspects of formula writing in Excel. This is a very common mistake that occurs and therefore, should always be error-checked whenever you are writing criteria statements.
Writing Excel Formula Criteria
Most people understand the basic rules around writing an Excel criteria statement. Whenever you start a complex criteria statement (meaning ones that involve mathematical operators or text), you have to remember to add the quotation symbols around whatever you write.
For example, if we wanted to count just the values that were greater than 0 within a given range, we would write:
= COUNTIF ( Range, “>0” )
In situations where you want to the criteria exactly equal to either a number or a cell, the quotation marks are no longer necessary. We can just list the number that we want in the criteria section of the syntax.
In this example, I just want to count the values that are equal to 0 within a given range:
= COUNTIF ( Range, 0 )
And in this last example, I just want to count the values that are equal to the value in cell F3. It’s important to note that when writing this last statement, instead of typing the text “F3”, I can just directly click on the cell I want to get it into the formula:
= COUNTIF ( Range, F3 )
The Common Mistake
The common mistake arises when we try to bring these components together – when we want to write a complex criteria statement that refers directly to a cell. To continue along with the previous examples, let’s say we want to count all values in a given range that are greater than the value in cell F3.
To complete this task, many of us would just write:
= COUNTIF ( Range, “>F3” )
If you audit this formula, you’ll soon realize that your intended criteria statement has not registered. Had it worked correctly in the example above, the return value would be 3. The problem is that Excel just reads the entire entry between the quotation marks as text. Therefore, you’ve essentially told Excel to only count values that are equal to the text “>F3” which obviously won’t match any of your values. Since no values match these conditions, the statement returns a zero value.
The Proper Syntax
The correct way to write the criteria statement is as follows:
“Mathematical Operators” & Cell Reference
In terms of individual steps, you would perform the following:
- Open quotation mark
- Insert mathematical operators
- Close quotation mark
- Insert the ampersand symbol
- Click on the cell you want to refer to
The key to not making a mistake is that you MUST NOT put quotation marks around your cell reference. You also MUST INCLUDE an ampersand symbol. If you’ve written the statement properly, it will look like this:
= COUNTIF ( Range, ”>”&F3)
How to Ensure that it’s Working
The correct way of writing the criteria statement looks weird, and thus, makes us prone to making a mistake. While this proper syntax can be difficult to remember (which is probably why you’re reading this page in the first place) there is one trick to ensure that your criteria statement is working:
Make sure your cell reference is highlighted in color in the formula bar
If the text is colored when you click inside the formula bar, you know that the cell is being referenced.
Having an error in this situation is dangerous because Excel does NOT return an error value after you’ve made the mistake. Therefore, it’s easy to pass this over even though the calculation wrong. Always go back and double check your criteria statements with the trick above to ensure good quality control.