Inserting Symbols in Excel

Microsoft Excel is a fantastic tool for analyzing scientific data. Microsoft Word is a fantastic tool for writing up scientific research. So surely Microsoft Office is the only software a scientist would ever require beyond that associated with specialist scientific apparatus?

Microsoft Excel is a fantastic tool for analyzing scientific data. Microsoft Word is a fantastic tool for writing up scientific research. So surely Microsoft Office is the only software a scientist would ever require beyond that associated with specialist scientific apparatus?

Unfortunately, that has never been the case and most university researchers would identify one big problem with the Office suite and that is why it’s always been difficult to present formulas in Word and Excel. Even when you type a simple fraction like 3/5, it gets presented on a single line. As for Greek symbols like pi…well, that would mean many hours wasted trawling through Excel’s Insert Symbol menu.

This may sound a little unfair. After all, a standard Microsoft installation would include something called Equation Editor. Suffice to say, it wasn’t advertised in the promotional videos. Software like Matlab was considered vastly superior and had the added advantage that you could analyze the equations as well. Anyway, the good news is that Microsoft has taken a big step forwards with Office 2010 and it’s now possible to correctly display formulas in a pretty painless fashion.

In Excel 2010, you should select the Insert ribbon, and click Equation. This creates a textbox and brings up a whole new ribbon with options for inserting equations. As well as providing easy access to the main Greek symbols, Microsoft have provided quick access to a number of simple functions, such as fractions and exponentials.

When you write your formula, you will see that any x symbols show up in formula script. That means no extra formatting is required between typing the formula and publishing the completed work. This is ideal if you’ve ever wanted to label a chart with its mathematical formula.

The only caveat to add to all the above is that your freshly written equation will appear in a textbox. Textboxes are distinct from the main spreadsheet in that they have no cell address. This means they can be dragged across the sheet to your desired location. Obviously you don’t want to have to move the formula every time you insert or delete rows from the underlying spreadsheet. Fortunately the default settings for such objects ensure that they retain their local position at all times.

Experienced Excel users will appreciate that textboxes default to having a border and white background. That’s because they are often used to add comments or guidance to a user and so have to stand out. Otherwise a user would be foolish not to type words directly into the spreadsheet’s cells. As equations can only be created in textboxes, the default settings are somewhat different; there is no border and no fill.

Following the above steps, it should be easy to incorporate mathematical equations into any spreadsheet development you do. This means you can present your research professionally without having to produce your formulas in e.g. Matlab and screen capture them before putting them in your final report.

It’s worth stating that equations can also be entered in Word 2010 directly using a similar technique. Alternatively you can embed your Excel spreadsheets in Word because Office allows you to integrate your Word documents with your spreadsheets.

Ed Bolton is the founder of Excel4Business, and an expert at spreadsheet development.

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