Named columns: Groups or items?

In response to the last post, one commenter asked whether the name of a column was the name of the group of cells in the column, or the name of each individual cell in the column. The answer is…both!

The cells in a named column can be treated either as a whole group, or as a bunch of individual cells. So when is a group not a group? It depends on the function being used, and whether that function is designed for a group of things, or for one or more individual things.

So how do you know which way a function will treat a named column (or row)? That’s actually pretty easy: you guess. Or at least I do. When using a function I’m not already familiar with I assume that it will act the way I expect it to, then I check the results, and if the results aren’t what I expected, I correct my assumption.

Before you assume that it’s easy for me because I know spreadsheets, let me give you a couple of fake examples, based on tasks that might be done in regular day-to-day life.

First, let’s imagine that we have a list of all the addresses in New York. Let’s name that list “NY”.

Now, imagine that we have a function called “visit”. We might well want to “visit NY”. However, the likelihood of anyone wanting to visit every single address in NY is fairly small, so if “visit” were a spreadsheet function it would only want individual item from the list, not the entire list. So it would treat the list as a bunch of items, and just use the one that’s closest to (i.e. in the same row as) it.

Then imagine that we have a function called “mail spam to”. The person using this function probably does want to mail spam to every single address in NY. Therefore if this were a spreadsheet function it would want everything from the list, not just the most convenient/closest entry.

See what I mean? Of course it’s not always that simple, which is why you want to check when using an unfamiliar function, or a familiar function in an unfamiliar program. For example, the concatenate function in Excel treats named columns as collections of items, but in Google Docs it treats named columns as groups.