Lots of terms in computing have their roots in an earlier time, where the association has long since disappeared. The mouse was so called because of its “tail” connecting it to the machine; when was the last time you used a wired mouse? Then there’s the apocryphal story of a young person, on first encountering a 3.5” floppy disk (er, not so floppy any more) thinking that someone had 3D printed the save icon.
As well as the QWERTY keyboard layout, a few things were carried over to the modern computer from the typewriter – the backspace and tab keys and the carriage return key. Purely mechanical typewriters had an end-of-line lever, which caused the paper to feed one line and the whole mechanism of the roller to shoot back to start a new line. Electric typewriters had the innovation of not requiring the dings and the manual whirrs, by pressing the RETURN key to automate the carriage – the symbol still displayed on most computer keyboards today is indicative of the physical action.
Early computer systems aped the same approach of the line feed (ie the paper being shuffled up one line) and the carriage return (going back to the left side), as being separate activities and they were given specific control codes – so CR, LF and CR+LF are still things. For some time, consternation still applied as Windows considered that CR + LF needed to be noted to really start a new line, whereas the Unix fraternity simply thought that LF was all you needed. It is possible to hack the registry so Notepad acts Unixsy should you need it to.
In most applications, if you want to start a new line, you’d just press Return or Enter (in effect, the same thing, though not always the case). Pedants would say that ENTER doesn’t mean you necessarily need a new line, you’re just committing some data you’ve typed, redolent of the old terminal where you might be submitting a form rather than typing in free text.
Applications perform sometimes completely different actions when you press a modifier key like CTRL or ALT, and ENTER. In Word, CTRL+ENTER starts a new page, ALT+ENTER repeats the last typing action. In Outlook, CTRL+ENTER sends the current email and ALT+ENTER – like the same keystroke normally does when looking at a file in Windows Explorer – shows the properties of the current message.
In Excel, CTRL+ENTER has some other meanings, notably it completes the entry of data into a cell, without moving the selection to the next cell along or to the line below (depending on config). SHIFT+CTRL+ENTER can be used to create a powerful but quite complex array formula. ALT+ENTER also has a useful trick for formatting text in-cell, alongside some tips to control cell text formatting.
Sometimes, however, the layout doesn’t quite sit right unless you resize the column, and that might not be ideal. If typing in new text into a cell, you can force a new-line within the box by pressing ALT+ENTER. For existing text in a cell, one solution to put a new line in is to double-click in the cell, which will insert a flashing text cursor and you edit text directly in the cell rather than the formula bar text box at the top of the sheet. Move the cursor using the arrow keys and/or by clicking the mouse elsewhere in the text; press ALT+ENTER to force a new line in the box.
Another way of editing text in an existing cell; select it and the text will be displayed in the formula bar, but only the first line, unless you have the formula bar expanded out, by clicking the down-arrow on the right.
Updates flow to Microsoft 365 on a regular basis – there’s a published list of all the minor and major changes that are launched and on their way. As well as improving the current user experience and adding new features, occasionally whole new offerings are added – such as Microsoft Lists, which first made an appearance in July.
Lists gives an easy way of creating, sharing and managing lists of custom information within a team – tracking issues, recording assets, anything in fact, that might have used a shared spreadsheet to do it in a low-tech way. Lists was announced to provide a modern-looking, consistent way of managing lists through a variety of front-ends – including mobile apps, to come later this year.
You should be able to see Lists from the menu on Office 365 web apps – start at www.office.com and sign in with a business Office/Microsoft 365 login and the new icon will give you access to Lists – get started here.
Just like sharing forms or doing task management, there are often numerous ways to do the same thing – and in days of yore, that would have meant several competing and incompatible technologies, encouraged to fight it out with each other to try to ensure that the best one wins. Nowadays, with a more collegiate mindset, consistent ways of doing things show up in different user experiences – like To-Do and Outlook, StickyNotes and more. Expect deeper integration across other apps in due course
The new Lists experience is essentially just a great UI built on top of a mature back-end; SharePoint Lists, which have evolved over the last 10+ years, allowing the definition of custom columns and rules to validate data entry.
One new frontier is to integrate the new Lists UI into Teams; if you have ability to administer a Team, you will see an “add a tab” function alongside the Posts / Files etc tabs that are typically presented.
Adding a List tab will then walk you through a process to either choose an existing List (by entering the URL of the SharePoint site that hosts it) or by creating one by importing a spreadsheet, starting from a number of templates or by defining it from scratch
Have a play with Lists and think about how your team could use them in place of spreadsheets.
Microsofties: There’s an internal story about how Lists came about, and looking forward to where it’s likely to go in the future.
Check out Paul Thurrott’s excellent introduction to Lists. And there’s even a Lists Look Book.
As an example, if you took the small table below and wanted to copy and paste the calculated values on row 4, you’d need to deal with the fact that the formula will change – offsetting the D and the 2 reference to wherever you paste it (eg if you pasted the copy into E4, the formula would be =E2-E3) – normally, a powerful and useful function, but a potential nuisance.
You could decide to paste just the value itself (which means that if the values in D2 and D3 changed, cell D4 would be recalculated but your copy would not), or you could copy the cell, then copy original cell’s formula and paste that into the formula of the destination cell.
There are lots of “Paste Special” options, which will vary depending on what kind of data is in the clipboard. Right-click in a destination cell and the Paste Options menu will surface the commonly used variants, or click the arrow by Paste Special to see all the others. Move the mouse over that pop-up menu and the rest will fade away.
An older UI for selecting the options is available if you click on the Paste Special… command at the bottom of the pop-out, or by pressing CTRL+ALT+V to pop out the Special dialog.
One of the more particularly useful features of Paste Special in Excel is the Transpose option – if you select and Copy a row of data then Paste / Transpose it, the data is rearranged as a column (and vice versa). Great news in many cases, but if you want to paste cells and keep the original formulae (without resorting to using absolute references formula references using $ in the formula itself, eg setting =$D$2-$D$3), there are no default options to transpose the orientation of the cells but not change the formulae.
One trick if you ever find yourself in this position, is to bulk change the formulas so they won’t get modified when you paste the cells; do a Find & Replace to change = to something like #=.
It’s an edge case but could save you lots of time if you need to do it.
For most of us, getting to grips with shortcut keys in Excel would make things more productive – as well as numerous combos of CTRL-something, there are simple keys (like pressing F4, which repeats the very last command … so if you’ve just coloured a cell yellow, move the cursor to another cell and hit F4 to make that one yellow too… if you’re doing very repetitive things, this can save so much time).
There are also more complex sequences; press the ALT key in Excel (and other Office apps, too) to see the key combos that invoke each command group on menus or the Ribbon – if you can’t remember the shortcut, just press ALT then the key for the menu you want, then the key on the menu that equates to the command you’re looking for.
A little bit of legacy/history – press ALT-E then S to jump to the Paste Special menu – why E? Even though it’s long gone, really old versions of Excel had an Edit menu, and the commands on any menu – in any application – that have an underscore under a letter (like Paste Special) are highlighting the key you can press to jump to that command.
So ALT E / S used to be the combo to get Paste Special circa Excel 2003, and it still exists today.
For decades, it’s been possible to import data into spreadsheets from elsewhere. Excel supports many data sources, from basic stuff like CSV, ODBC and OLE DB, to more specific and advanced knowledge of particular data sources and types.
A recent tweet from @msexcel showed a simple video on how to grab data from a website – highlighting a capability that’s been in Excel for years but has been refreshed and made a lot easier to use.
If you want to revert to using the old data import methods, you can either enable the Legacy import wizards in Options (File > Options > Data > Show legacy data import wizards), or just type Legacy into the Search / Tell Me box in Excel, and see the available actions from there.
Once you’ve tagged the source data, clicking on the icon to the left of the data point will show a pop up with the background detail, or you can reference the fields within formulae to display or manipulate the data values.
Optical Character Recognition is one of those technologies which has gone from being just-about-possible at great expense and hassle, to so mainstream that people just assume it will work flawlessly, all in a relatively few years. Numerous companies offer OCR services or addins to line-of-business systems which help to prepare printed data for easier consumption – scanning invoices for example.
Consumers tend to use OCR in other ways; combined with language translation, you can point your phone at a foreign menu or sign and it may be able to help you understand. In OneNote, if you have captured an image (maybe through the clipper addin from your browser), then it can extract the text from that picture – not always perfectly, and not necessarily well-formatted, but it’s probably quicker than re-typing everything.
A recent addition to the iOS version of Excel is the ability to scan a table of printed data and use OCR plus a bit of tweaking, to import the data into the spreadsheet. See more here. The same functionality was first made available on Android a couple of months earlier …
Start with the grid capture icon on the toolbar of a new spreadsheet, and then use the camera to highlight the area of a document that you’re interested in – the UI will be familiar to anyone who uses Office Lens, as the same anti-skewing technology is used to prepare the “document” for importing.
Then the OCR goes to work and tries to lay out the data as closely as possible to its source – obviously, your accuracy will be improved by having a well-lit and clear original document, and you’ll get to tweak the contents in context of seeing the OCR’d data and the scan at the same time, before committing to insert it.
This might be a very old-Microsoft culture thing, but alias names have always been a relatively big deal within the company; not an alias in the sense of a nom de plume or some alter ego, but a name curiously given to mean your login name.
Before enlightenment, Microsofties were emailed simply by sending to email@example.com – and still are, so even if the primary mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you could still mail them at email@example.com, or whatever their alias is.
In a company with a handful of people, it was easy to remember such a name for when you wanted to drop them an email, but with hundreds of thousands of mail addresses, you might need more room – when Exchange Server came out in 1996, it supported 64 characters in the alias name, though oddly, Microsoft has never embraced longer than 8-character aliases.
Back in the day, your mailbox was a folder on a Xenix server, then an MS Mail postoffice, and the folder names were restricted by the 8.3 filename format. There are probably too many legacy systems that also have an employee name represented by their 8-letter alias, and it still kinda works.
Some people at Microsoft still talk about an email distribution list as an “alias” – eg. “TAKE ME OFF THIS ALIAS!!” as a Reply-All (as opposed to a little “r”) to the occasional mail storms that amazingly still happen. They’re wrong – those are Distribution Lists (DLs) or maybe more correctly, Distribution Groups (DGs).
But the true “alias” lives on, even if the Skypey “Contact Card” UI in Outlook does its best to not show you what someone’s alias is (but you can usually still get to Open Outlook Properties, which shows you the traditional Outlook address book view, with alias in the very top section). Lots of reports from Microsoft’s internal systems will refer to an employee using their alias name, so it often helps if you can decipher an alias into the person behind it.
Resolving an alias to a name one-at-a-time is all very well, but when looking at a column of alias names in some spreadsheet, it’s a bit of a palaver to turn each of the FORENAMS into something meaningful.
Fear not, worthy reader, for a solution is to hand.
This can be handy if you’re building Excel reports and want to add names to a table instead of aliases – you could sort the list of aliases alphabetically, run them through the resolver, and then reference the table with a VLOOKUP formula so you could hide the column of aliases from your report and show instead the derived real names.
In Outlook, any time there’s a date field (like when you’re setting a reminder, or entering the start date/time for an appointment) you can choose or enter a regular date, or put in an expression – like “2 days” or “next Tuesday” – and Outlook will figure out the offset from today, and will set the appropriate date.
In some date fields (like an appointment start time), if you say “4 days” then press enter or TAB, it will evaluate the new date; if you return and put “4 days” again, it may add those extra days to the last date. Try a few other things like “next Christmas”, “3rd Sunday in November”, “2mo” , “7d” or some special days – there are some surprising ones there, like “Lincoln’s birthday”, and other events with static dates … though nothing that might change the actual date from year to year (like Easter, or Thanksgiving).
In Excel, press CTRL+; to insert the current date into any cell – add a SHIFT key to insert the time instead. Excel are many date-oriented functions, but you don’t always need to write functions – simple maths can work on date fields – calculating the number of days’ difference between two dates, for example, or adding a number of days to a start date.
In the desktop OneNote app, if you want to edit the date and time at the top of a page, click on the field and you’ll see a clock or calendar icon appear next to it – click on that is set to, click on that to change the value; handy if you’re updating some reference material and want to make it clear that it’s recent.
Another way might be to insert the current date or time into the text: to do so, press SHIFT-ALT-D, or SHIFT-ALT-T for the current time, or SHIFT-ALT-F for the current date and time. The last one is really handy if you’re taking notes about a phone call, and want to quickly note the time that your insurance company said that everything was all fine, or when you started the indefinite call to the airline. The same shortcuts apply to the desktop OneNote 2016 application and also the OneNote store app.
Word also supports SHIFT-ALT-D and SHIFT-ALT-T like OneNote, though inserts a date or time field rather than a simple bit of text, and is slightly different to the Date & Time command on the Insert tab, which gives a bit more control over the formatting at the point of insertion, rather than requiring the user to insert the field then go back in to edit the format.
Since Outlook uses Word as its text editor behind the scenes, the same shortcut keys will also insert date fields into the text of an Outlook email.
Sometimes, when writing the ToW, the topic is inspired by a specific problem that someone has emailed me – it’d be a lot better if they’d email me the solution to a problem, but never mind – and sometimes it comes about because of an issue I’ve spent ages struggling with and then happened upon a solution. Today’s is following one of those latter episodes.
Be honest. Do you know how to use the VLOOKUP function in Excel? It has its roots in @LOOKUP from VisiCalc, which goes back well over 30 years – see here for a demo (and, wipe a tear, you missed “VLOOKUP WEEK 2012”).
It’s one of the more useful functions, where you can use tables of text to cross reference one another – leading some to create spreadsheets to manipulate data that might be achieved elsewhere by a database join or an IF…THEN…ELSE statement.
VLOOKUP (and her friends, HLOOKUP, LOOKUP and the other reference functions) is all very well if you have nicely constructed and controlled data – but what if you have messy text that has been entered by end users? How do you go about normalising that without boring brute force (ie ploughing through it all yourself)?
Imagine, if you will, that you have a list of a few hundred company names exported from your CRM system – let’s call them “Partners”. What if you also had many thousands of unique names from people who’ve registered at a conference? (Let’s call that “Partner Conference”). Wouldn’t it be nice to run a report which shows the team that works with each partner, who has registered and where they’re from?
If the registration tool allowed anyone to enter free text fields for the name of their company, you’ll get any number of variations, mis-spellings etc – maybe even the odd deliberate spanner. (On the McXFace front, once again, El Reg excelled itself with this headline, though has a way to go to top the best so far… or the subheading of this one, which reads like a line from a DC Thomson cartoon).
These names won’t allow VLOOKUPs as they’ll show up as all different, and therefore cross-referencing one source with the other will be difficult. So even telling Jane Smith, who manages the ACME Inc account, that these 10 people are attending the conference, is going to be hard if every one of them registered with a variation of A.C.M.E, ACME Inc, Ac-me Ltd and so on.
A relatively little-known Excel addin might come to the rescue (technically described as a technology preview in the EULA, but it’s been around for a little while in its last variation, and a few more before that; so probably is not going to advance a great deal more) – the Fuzzy Lookup Add-in for Excel. Simply take two sources of data (formatted as tables), create one or more mappings between them, and run the tool to see what it comes up with.
The Fuzzy Lookup tool will add extra columns to the source table; showing the text that it thinks is the nearest match, and a score of “similarity”. The technology comes from Microsoft Research, and uses the Jaccard Similarity method of comparing sample data sets.
One technique for comparing a couple of different columns is to set conditional formatting on the Similarity column and choose colour scales for easy identification of the ones likely to be correct; or simply put a filter on that column and hide rows below an arbitrary low bar (like 0.6). Then spin down the two columns to the left and check to see if they tally up, given the human eye for spotting similarity, spelling mistakes etc. You could even add a Y/N column to the right so you can manually affirm which is right and which is not, then filter on that to confirm.
After installing the Fuzzy Lookup addin, you’ll get a fairly detailed Readme and a nicely illustrative Excel sample file showing some share price comparisons (with company names in wildly different formats being matched with eerie accuracy). It might be in preview but it could be exactly what the Excel jockey needs.
Fuzzy Duck? Ducky Fuzz! Does he?
Spreadsheets did – or do, still – make the modern IT world go round. Until Dan Bricklin and VisiCalc invented the familiar grid-based software environment, business school boffins had to manually write up large grids of numbers on blackboards, and routinely calculate the impact of changes in any one “cell” based on a book of formulae. An error-prone process that could, as you’d imagine, take a long time.
As it happens, VisiCalc powered the Jobs’n’Woz enterprise to mass success, as Apple IIs were selling (even fully kitted out at $5k+ a time, in the 1980s) to middle managers who were sick of the Data Processing department taking ages to turn around financial reports, so they took to sticking an Apple on their desk and doing the sums themselves. If you’re interested in all of this, see here.
Lotus software quickly became the de facto spreadsheet provider running on PC-DOS (as it was so fast, meaning the spreadsheet jockeys ditched their Apple IIs and flocked to PCs), but Lotus got distracted with OS/2 while Microsoft’s Windows 3.0 started to gain traction. In place of WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase, the 1st party Microsoft Office suite took early and full advantage of Windows, ultimately powering Office to the front. So, Excel trumped 1-2-3, just as Lotus eclipsed VisiCalc.
That means Microsoft Excel for Windows has been around for a very long time, and there are many functions you’ve probably never used – but there are loads of useful tips that could make your life easier. Here are a few…