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How do you use an array formula to sum up element-wise minimum values?

Suppose you plan to buy several computer parts from either BestBuy or Circuit City.  The two stores have different prices for each product.  If you buy from one store exclusively, you won’t get the best deals possible.  To optimize the value of your hard-earned dollar, you want to find the least amount of money necessary to buy one of each part.

99.5% of the time, you’d set up a spreadsheet similar to the one shown below.  By using a MIN() function, you create a third column listing the lower price of each item.  Then it’s a no-brainer to add up the column for the total.


Download the Sample File

Occassionally, you may want/need to calculate this number in one single step.  Array formulas came to mind and it seems intuitive to write {=SUM(MIN([array 1], [array 2]))}.  However, that doesn’t work because MIN([array 1], [array 2]) does not give you an array of element-wise minimum values… instead, it gives you a single minimum value between the two arrays.

To fix this problem, you can employ the IF() function within your array formula.  This is short, clean, and easy to understand:

{=SUM(IF([array 1]>[array 2], [array 2], [array 1]))}

Or if you prefer to use the mask/filter approach, your formula could look like this:

{=SUM([array 1]*([array 1]<[array 2]) + [array 2]*([array 1]>=[array 2]))}

The ([array 1]<[array 2]) part creates a mask of 0’s and 1’s, which is used in a similar manner to the typical SUMIF-type of array formulas.  The two approaches use the same logic, and the only difference is the appearance.

A problem is always simple when you already have the solution, but believe it or not, I came up with the most convoluted approach and a super long formula when this problem was first presented to me.  I’ve included that formula in the sample spreadsheet – see if you can figure out what I was trying to do!

Download the Sample File

My intern came to me today and asked about displaying multiple lines within a cell.  I’ll write the first real post in his honor.

Most people know that when entering text in Excel, pressing ALT+ENTER makes a new line.  However, he needed to generate this multi-line string dynamically (via a formula).  The new line characters, carriage return (CR) and line feed (LF), are not as obvious in Excel as most programming languages make them.

Note: This refers to the ‘\r\n’ in C-styled languages and vbCrLf in Visual Basic. In many environments, however, only the latter (‘\n’ and vbLf) is necessary to create a new line.


Download the Sample File

One way to do this, which may be more intuitive to non-programmers, is to use the same ALT+ENTER key stroke by entering this formula:

= [first line] & “[press ALT+ENTER here]” & [second line]…

Another way to do this, which is longer but probably preferred by programmers, is to employ the new line characters (CR + LF):

= [first line] & CHAR(13) & CHAR(10) & [second line]…

Similar to aforementioned note, only CHAR(10) is necessary for the desired results.  Add CHAR(13) only if you have the pet peeve from certain programming styles.

This entry may sound obvious, but here’s the catch: by using the formula above, you probably will still see all your text concatenated on one line.  You still need to wrap text (Format -> Cells -> Alignment tab -> Wrap text) in order to see multiple lines!  Note: Excel automatically sets the wrap text property when you enter plain text (instead of a formula) with a line break in a cell.

Download the Sample File

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When I was in college, I regarded myself as an Excel expert.  But as soon as I started getting paychecks in the “real world”, I stopped being so naive.  My Excel knowledge doubled, tripled, and went up at least 10-fold within three years.  Do I consider myself an advanced user now?  Sure.  Is there more to learn?  Of course.

Like other professionals whose worlds revolve around Excel, I gained most of my knowledge through solving topical problems, and I frequently found help through Google on blogs/forums/websites run by Excel experts.  Now that I’m much more comfortable with this software, I thought that it’s time to give back to the community.  Hopefully one day someone will be Googling a specific Excel question and find a solution here.  Then I’ll be glad.

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