Column Headings: Column numbers instead of letters?

When you usually open Microsoft Excel and create a new workbook, you would see your well-known worksheet style: Row numbers on the left and column letters on the top of the cells. But sometimes, you would see something different: Column number instead of letters. What has happend? And how can you change it back?


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In a hurry? In Excel, go to File –> Options –> Formulas (on the left) and remove the check from “R1C1 reference style“.

What are column numbers in Excel?

Excel provides the option to switch from letters (=default) to numbers in the headings. If you use numbers in the headings, it’s called the “R1C1 reference style” or “Relative Notation”. It’s an older style of referencing cells.

The R1C1 reference style: Column letters instead of numbers.

The problem with it: Formulas look much different if you use column letters.

In some cases it could make sense to use numbers instead of letters:

  • Working with VBA macros: For entering loops or cell coordinates and debugging them, the R1C1 reference style could be useful.
  • If you need to count the number of columns, e.g. when using VLOOKUP.
Formulas and functions look very different in the R1C1 reference style
Formulas and functions look very different in the R1C1 reference style

However, in most cases you want to use column letters (this is called the “A1-Notation” style)

How to switch back column headings to letters (A, B, C)

So, how to switch from column numbers to letters?

numbers, letters, excel, headings, change, options
Switch column headings from numbers to letters within the Excel options.
  1. Go To File and click on Options.
  2. Select Formulas on the left hand side.
  3. Set the tick at “R1C1 reference style”.

Switching back from numbers to letters works the same way. Only in the last step, you have to remove the tick from “R1C1 reference style”.


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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Henrik Schiffner is a freelance business consultant and software developer. He lives and works in Hamburg, Germany. Besides being an Excel enthusiast he loves photography and sports.

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