Traditionally, a spreadsheet was a large sheet of paper with columns and rows that recorded details about business transactions. It spread, or displayed, all costs, income, taxes etc. on a single sheet of paper. This allowed companies to see all their data in one place, organised into rows and columns.

A computerised spreadsheet also uses columns and rows to organise data. What makes spreadsheet software unique is its ability to automatically calculate values from the data in cells using mathematical formulae.

Spreadsheet structure

A spreadsheet consists of a table of cells arranged into columns and rows. Columns are normally represented by letters and rows by numbers. Each cell, therefore, has an 'address' and can be located by its column and row – C5 for example.

Cells commonly contain one of five different data types:

  1. Boolean values: Boolean or logical values are either TRUE or FALSE. For example, this could be Male/Female or Yes/No
  2. Dates and times: Stores dates and times that can be used in calculations, such as calculating ages from dates of birth, or wages from hours worked
  3. Values: Numbers. Whole numbers (1, 2, 500) and decimals (1.5, 80.45 etc.) can be used interchangeably within a spreadsheet. For example, a quantity in stock may be represented by a whole number, while employee hours may be represented by a decimal number
  4. Text: Descriptive pieces of information such as names, addresses and post codes
  5. Formula: Allows you to add, subtract, multiply or divide information in one cell by the values in another cell. More complicated formulas containing algebraic expressions and other mathematical equations can also be used