Excel: Don’t Merge Those Cells! Here is an Alternative.

Friends don’t let friends merge cells! This is something you hear often among Excel enthusiasts. People usually merge cells in an attempt to make a spreadsheet look nicer. That being said… not only is the beauty of a spreadsheet less important than its functionality, which is definitely adversely affected by merged cells… but there is actually a way to alter the appearance identically to merging cells without all of the many disadvantages that come with merged cells. Let’s check it out.

Excel screen with merged cells

Exercise

If you would like to follow along with my demonstration below, here is an Exercise file: MergedCells

This is a fictional list of students and grades, with some merged cells at the top.

Merged Cells

The first row of data contains 3 sets of merged cells: A1 with B1; C1 with D1; and E1 with F1. If you select any of these, notice in your Alignment group that Merge and Center is selected.

Excel screen with merged cells

Perhaps someone did this in an attempt to make their spreadsheet look less cluttered? Let’s see why this might have been a bad idea.

Why Merged Cells are Problematic

There are actually quite a few ways that merged cells can be problematic. Here are just a few.

Sort and Filter

Let’s say I would like to use the custom Filter buttons we play with in Excel Essentials.Β  You want to filter by all students with an A.

1. Click anywhere in the top row, and on the right side of the Home tab, select Sort and Filter, and Filter.

Sort and Filter2. Now, Go to the dropdown created next to Grade.

Sort and filter by grade

Normally I would have the opportunity to filter by letter grade, but because E1 and F1 were merged cells, Excel instead only offers for you to filter by grade %. Not very helpful.

PivotTables

Maybe instead, we can make a PivotTable from the data, and pivot by the letter grade? Go to the Insert tab, and select PivotTable.

Pivot Table errors

What is this? We are receiving an error because we don’t have true column labels (header row) when cells are merged like they are in our top row.. this means that Excel doesn’t know what our categories are to create a PivotTable.

(Shameless plug: come to an Excel: Pivot Tables training if you would like to learn more.)

Formulas

This is probably the biggest one for me. Let’s say I want to count the number of 22 year old students in my class. No problem! Let’s do a CountIf formula.

In I1 I entered =Countif( … then I tried to select my range, column D…. look what happens:

Formula attempting to select full column

Excel doesn’t want to allow me to include column D alone… it wants to include Column C as well. How annoying! We could probably find our way around this formula issue, but even then, I guarantee these merged cells will get in your way with a future formula.

Macros

It is worth mentioning that there are macros that can be interfered with when you use merged cells; it depends on what type of macro you are building.

All in all, merged cells are just not worth the trouble.

Another Option: Center Across Selection

If you are truly attached to the look of merged cells, there is another option. It is called Center Across Selection.

  1. First, let’s undo the merged cells. Select the merged areas, then go to the Home tab, Alignment group, select the dropdown for Merge and Center, and select Unmerge cells.

Unmerge Cells

2. Select A1 and B1, and Right Click on top of them. Select Format Cells.

right click, format cells screen

3. In the popup screen, go to the Alignment tab, and click on the dropdown next to Horizontal. Select Center Across Selection. Click OK.

Alignment tab, center across

4. Repeat this step with C1 and D1 selected, then E1 and F1 selected. Appearance wise, it will look just like merged cells.

Center across looks the same as merge and center

This still will be somewhat limiting; for instance, you may still have difficulty with a PivotTable unless you convert this to a Table first, but you will not experience nearly as many drawbacks as merged cells.

A Question for You

Whether you choose to center across or merge cells, I think it is an important question to ask yourself, why are you wanting to do this? Is it truly necessary? When at all possible, I would recommend avoiding either of these practices. I understand the desire to beautify a workbook, but clearly labeled columns with long lines of uninterrupted data are the truly beautiful spreadsheets. Their beauty is in their functionality; and when functionality is lost, nobody will really care much about how the top row looks. Just a thought, from someone who has “unmerged” many cells in many peoples’ spreadsheets over the years.

Thoughts?

What do you think? Has this convinced you to unmerge and never merge again? Either way, I will be here to help you.

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Sheree Smith
(First Power User of the decade!)

Sheree Smith