Equal-Plus in Excel: Why You Should Not Start a Formula With “=+”

=+A1 vs. =A1, excel, equal-plus, equal, sign, formula

You’ve probably seen it already: Starting a formula in Excel with “=+” (equal-plus) instead of just equal. So why do people use the “=+” instead of just “=”? Is there any meaning? This article describes the background of the equal-plus signs, the advantages and disadvantages.

What does the equal-plus sign mean?

If you type +A1, Excel automatically adds the equal sign.
If you type +A1, Excel automatically adds the equal sign.

Lotus 1-2-3 is a spreadsheet program and according to Wikipedia, it “was the IBM PC’s first killer application”. However, the last version was published in 2003 and support ended in 2014. Entering formulas or values in Lotus 1-2-3 you could use the “+”-sign instead of “=” like in Excel. In order to welcome Lotus 1-2-3 users, Excel tolerated entering formulas just using the “+”-sign. It automatically adds the “=”-sign before so that formulas are converted. The “+”-sign stays.

Advantages and disadvantages of the =+-sign

First of all: There is no harm of the =+-sign in the beginning of an Excel formula. With that in mind, let’s talk about advantages and disadvantages of using equal-plus instead of just equal for Excel formulas and calculations.

Advantages

The = and + signs on the US keyboard layout.
The = and + signs on the US keyboard layout.
  • Lotus 1-2-3 users don’t have to change their behavior of entering formulas in Excel.
  • The “+”-sign is also located on the number pad like on the image on the right-hand side. So if your hand is there you don’t have to move over to the letters.
  • The additional “+”-sign has no significant impact on the calculation performance. Same counts for the file size.

Disadvantages

  • It makes formulas slightly longer and therefore more difficult to read.
  • It could confuse other users who don’t know the details about “=+”-sign as you do now.
  • If you following the basic rules of model-building, you either type values directly into the cell (with no calculation). You don’t do calculation with values inside a cell, instead you properly label input cells and link to them. For example, you don’t write =12,3+32,1. Instead, you set up two cell, each of them having one value. In a third cell, you do the calculation with the input values, e.g. =A2+A3.
    That means, you never need an equal or plus sign on the number pad. Instead, you rather need letters to start typing formulas or brackets. Because of that, the equal sign should be faster to reach because (on the US keyboard layout) it’s located next to the backspace without pressing Shift.
    So it’s faster typing “=” instead of “+”.
    There is one exception: For different keyboard layout, often the equal and the plus-signs are in different positions. For instance, the German keyboard layout requires to hold the Shift key for typing “=” whereas the “+”-sign doesn’t.
  • It looks – and this is my personal opinion – “dirty”.

Don’t mix =+ (equal-plus) up with – – (double minus)

Maybe it sounds similar, but the equal-plus sign for starting a formula in Excel doesn’t have anything to do with the double minus sign. The double negative converts TRUE and FALSE in formulas to the number 0 for FALSE and 1 for TRUE. When do you need that? For example in the SUMPRODUCT formula (please refer to this article for more information).

How to get rid of the equal-plus sign

Clean all Excel formulas with 'Professor Excel Tools'.
Clean all Excel formulas with ‘Professor Excel Tools’.

There are two methods to remove all “=+”-signs in Excel.

  1. Use the replace function. Press Ctrl + H on the keyboard to open the Replace window. Now replace =+ by just =. You can further set the scope to the complete workbook.
    One word of caution: This method removes all =+-sign, also within text cells.
  2. Use Professor Excel Tools. Our popular Excel add-in has a function to clean all formulas. It replaces all “=+” by “=” and also can remove all sheet names within formulas, if the formula refers to the own worksheet. It’s very convenient, because it only regards formula cells.

Professor Excel Tools Box

This function is included in our Excel Add-In ‘Professor Excel Tools’

(No sign-up, download starts directly)

More than 35,000 users can’t be wrong.


Summary and my opinion

equal-plus, "=+", excel, formula, plus-sign

Although the “=+”-sign doesn’t harm and doesn’t have any special meaning, there is no real advantage of using the “+”-sign to type a formula in Excel. Instead, there are minor disadvantages of the equal-plus version of formulas in Excel. And – and that’s my personal opinion on that matter – it looks dirty is just unnecessary

When I receive an Excel file containing formulas with equal-plus signs, I usually have the following thoughts: Someone wants to show that he or she is an Excel expert by not using the “normal” way of typing formulas but rather using the more complicated way. Unfortunately, I get the opposite impression. The author of the Excel file didn’t use the simple way but rather the dirty, more complicated way. That’s not good for an Excel file.

What do you think? What is your opinion about the =+-characters at the beginning of an Excel formula?

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.

10 comments

  1. How to keep formula instead of value in formula bar inspite of using + sign in formula?
    Becase i want to use only + sign in formula

  2. My macros create formulas by finding the best values in a worksheet then tacking them on with “+” and a multiplier variable. So all these formulas start with “=+”, which I observed, as you did, makes very little difference.

    1. Hi Jay,
      Thanks for the comment. I suppose many people don’t… well, as I said, that’s what I feel about it when I see it in Excel files. I’ve seen a lot of Excel files so far and – it might be a stereotype from my side – but it used to proof true to me.
      Best regards,
      Henrik

      1. The + sign bothers me when I see it. It just makes the formula more difficult to read. It is not logical, even in plain english we say that A equals B, not A pluses B. In math, we all use the = sign. There are some conventions, let’s use them.
        But I do agree with Jay that judging Excel users by this simple writing is quite judgmental. It is like me saying that Henrik is a very judgemental guy, period. I don’t know you enough for writing such a broad statement. I discovered this blog because I was getting into an argument with a friend of mine using the + sign. He is far from being an expert, and no, Henrik, he is not showing off. I asked him where he got that from, he answered this is how he was taught, in computer classes more than 40 years ago! He never used Lotus, but he sure was a very early Excel user. Changing his habit is not going to happen over night, and perhaps it will never change. That is not making him a bad person. According to him, many computer teachers are at the origin of the + sign pandemic. My impression when I see a + sign in formulas is that maybe, the user is not so young any longer. Perhaps that will help you, Henrik, to be a bit less judgemental.

  3. I don’t know why, but when I type a formula like “=A3/300/5″ and click enter, the formula remains =”A3/300/5”. When I type a formula like “+A3/300/5” and click enter, the formula changes into “=+A3/60”, that is a wrong result! Do you know why?

    1. There must have been an apostrophe at the beginning of your formula. Click in the formula bar and place your cursor at the beginning of your formula and delete the apostrophe.

  4. @Henrik – thanks for this thread.
    it helped us unravel a mysterious excel behaviour kept annoying us

    it turns out that there *IS* a meaningful difference between starting a formula with “=” vs “=+”
    i can’t upload a demonstration but i will describe a simple test setup:

    1) create a workbook with 2 sheets ‘Sheet1’ and ‘Sheet2’

    2) in Sheet2 col A enter the numbers 3,4 (A1=3; A2=4)

    3) switch to Sheet1 and in a blank cell type “=”; then switch to Sheet2 and
    click: cell A1 “+” cell A2 and return to Sheet1. (the blank cell should show “7”).
    this is the expected behaviour

    4) now in a different blank cell (on Sheet1) type “+”; then switch to Sheet2 and
    click: cell A1 “+” … at this point Excel will return abruptly to Sheet1 (if you want to add A2 as before you need to explicitly return to Sheet2).
    this is not the expected behaviour – it isn’t working the same as “=” did

    My understanding is that Excel is inserting an “=” before the “+” so the effect should be “the same” but it isn’t exactly the same.

    I never knew about this “throwback” + accommodation for Lotus users until reading your thread but here is another reason to stop using it.

  5. … more information … the “Sheet1/Sheet2” problem i reported in a previous post happens in the MacOS version of excel (365) but it seems not in the Win10 version

    apologies for the (lack of) formatting in the prev post. i didn’t realise the page would strip out blank lines

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