Common errors

Once you start working with functions and names and basically anything other than flat values, there’s a chance you’ll wind up with some sort of error messages.

There are a number of different errors you might run into, but most programs helpfully give you a code and possibly a quick tutorial that will, to some extent, help you figure out what’s wrong.

The most common errors I run into are:

  1. Missing/mistyped names: These errors occur when you enter something which the spreadsheet program can’t interpret. It could be the name of a function that you’ve mis-entered, or a name that you’ve defined but mis-entered, or a name that you thought you’d defined, but you haven’t yet.
  2. Circular references: Spreadsheets don’t care what’s true, they only care what can be solved. If you say that Sally is twice Billy’s age and Billy is half Sally’s age, it may be true, but it can’t be solved. Whenever one equation depends on the result of another equation that in turn depends on the result of the first equation, they just cycle back and forth, and so it’s called a circular reference.
  3. Missing references: If you’re in cell B1 and you refer to cell A1, that’s a valid reference. However, if you then delete column A, you’ll get an error because the cell B1 referred to no longer exists.
  4. Division by zero: You probably remember from grade school that you can’t divide anything by zero. However, it’s pretty easy to try to do by accident when using spreadsheets. Rather than attempting the calculation and either crashing or returning an inaccurate result, most spreadsheet programs will just return an error telling you that you tried to divide by zero.

I’ll discuss these errors, their codes, and how to fix them in future posts.