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What's a relative reference?

A relative cell reference points to an address that is relative to the location of the reference. When a formula is copied to a new location, relative references are automatically updated. Relative references are standard in Excel. When you want to perform similar calculations in different cells, they are exactly what you want, and will save you a lot of time entering and maintaining formulas.

Let's take a look.

In this worksheet we have 2 highlighted cell references.  Let's create a formula that adds them together. We can enter =B9 + D6

We get a result of 35, as expected. And any change to cell B9 or D6 is reflected immediately.

The cell references in this formula are relative references. What this means is that Excel evaluates the reference B9 as the cell two rows up, and two rows to the left.

And Excel evaluates the address D6 as the cell 5 rows up.

Let's copy our formula to a different cell to see relative references in action.

At the new location, we get a result of zero. Let's check the formula to see why that is. We see that Excel has updated the relative references. The formula is still adding the cell two rows up and two rows to the left, to the cell 5 rows up. Both cells are empty, so we get a result of zero.

Let's copy and paste a few more more times.

In each case, we see that Excel has updated the references in the formula to point to the same *relative* locations in the worksheet.

What will happen if we paste the formula into cell L5, where there is no cell 5 rows above?

In that case, we'll get a REF error. If we check the formula, we can see that the first reference is still valid, but the second reference is not.

Excel will show a reference error whenever it can't locate a cell reference.

Course 
Core Excel

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Author 
Dave Bruns
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