How to Start a Formula

Delain asks a great question. (Paraphrased) Why do some of my colleagues worksheet formulas start with a ‘+’?

The first spreadsheet that I used was called SuperCalc. I don’t remember much about that program other than I knew that I would have a long love affair with spreadsheets. (Any wonder I became an accountant?)

After SuperCalc, I moved to Lotus 1-2-3 v. 1A. I’m not what you would call an “early adopter.” I stuck with 1-2-3 through the first few versions of Excel (and many later versions of 1-2-3). I started using Excel with Excel97 and haven’t looked back since.

But enough about me. In Lotus 1-2-3, you start formulas with the plus sign and worksheet functions with the @ sign. You won’t see the @ sign in front of any worksheet functions, but you still may see a plus sign that seems superfluous. In Excel, of course, all formulas start with the equal sign (=).

Excel still support this 1-2-3 method of entering formulas. For instance, type this into a cell


and you’ll get =+A1

Type @SUM(A1:A3) and Excel converts it to =SUM(A1:A3)

If you see a plus sign that seems unnecessary, it’s either a file that started back in 1-2-3, or was created by a user who’s stuck in the past.

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9 thoughts on “How to Start a Formula

  1. I think it goes a bit deeper than that. I would bet that early spreadsheet programs used RPN in a prefix notation kinda style. It seems that “computing devices” inherently calculate faster that way…. An interesting read is from the HP museum where they “invented” RPN at this link:HP Museum

    Of course I could be wrong, but it does seem right to use the prefix of a plus to add it into the “stack” etc.

  2. When we were absolute beginners to computer an to spreadsheets thre was a spreadsheet software called “symphony” My brother still swears that any day sympony is better than MS excel.what happened to symphony?

  3. Paul, i dont think what you have said is quite right, but i dont know!

    Symphony is a “progression” of 1-2-3, which had dynamic cell growth ,(i think), and it’s been chatted about on the JWB, there are still products that work in the same way, i think, it was ment to be very good. Who knows! – apart from your borther!!!!

  4. I agree with Stacie,

    I much prefer to slap the extra large number pad plus sign than take the extra second to use the equals sign. Especially when my right hand is on the mouse.

  5. Harald, etal. No equal sign? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Shows how worldly I am. I’m shocked that people use the plus sign on purpose. I wonder what I’ve been missing. I think I’m going to try it for a week and see if I like it. It would nice if Excel would automatically remove it.

  6. Dick
    I assure you I DO start formulas with = and not + .But I’m a slow typist anyway, “type no faster than you think”. But the missing = key is annoying.

    Challenge for clever people with too little to do: See if/how much a leading + affects the calculation speed.

  7. Thanks for the answer guys.
    So just to clarify, when we are typing a formula, say ‘xyz’, it doesnt matter whether we say “=xyz” or if we say “=+xyz”. Are you saying that both of these are exactly the same?


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