Formatting elements: Column Width and Row Height (About)

Another formatting element that I’ve mentioned frequently, but not explained, is column width and, by extension, row height.

In a lot of ways wrapping the text, decreasing the font size, and changing the column width are all ways to do the same thing: make more text visible in the table. Text wrapping inherently also involves changing row heights. After all, if you wrapped the text to a new line but didn’t increase the height of the row, that new line wouldn’t be visible. Fortunately if you wrap text it will usually (but not always) automatically increase the height of the row for you. However, if you decrease the amount of text and it no longer has to wrap to a new line, it won’t necessarily automatically decrease the row height.

There are two main times you care about how much text can be seen in a cell. The first is when there is too much text to fit in the cell. The second is when you’re trying to print but the table is too big to fit on a single page.

If you have too much text to fit in a cell, and you don’t do anything to adjust for this fact, the extra text just disappears. Let’s think back to when I was talking about text wrapping. One of the examples I used showed how Excel, Google, and Open Office deal with wrapped text that’s too long. The Google example, which only showed the first group of letters from the alphabet, is exactly what can happen if you don’t wrap text to a new line, and don’t expand the width of the column to fit all of the data in the cell.

Technically, actually, it’s what does happen, but most programs will let text appear to continue on through the cell to the right of the one containing the actual data, so long as the cell to the right doesn’t contain any data itself. In the picture to the right I entered the alphabet in cells A1, A2, and A3. There’s a space in cell C2, which is why the text from A2 continues through B2, but not into C2. Likewise, there’s a space in cell B3 — note that not only does the text stop at the end of A3, it does not re-appear in C3 even though there’s nothing in C3.

It’s worth noting at this point that you can only change the width of the entire column, not of a single cell. If you just need one cell to be wider, you’ll have to merge it with the cell next to it.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not important that you see all of the text — just enough to gell you what’s in it. If you have a list of names consisting of, say, the first five presidents of the US (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monrow), you don’t need to see the first names to know which is which. Technically you only need the first two characters, but that’s taking it a bit far.

However, if you have the first six presidents, then you need to be able to see a lot more to know which one you’re looking at. The second president would be listed as “Adams, John”, and the sixth one would be “Adams, John Quincy”. So your column would need to be at least wide enough to show the Q in Quincy.

This becomes very relevant when you’re trying to make a table narrow enough to fit on a single sheet of paper. When you print there’s no way for someone to just move to the cell in question and see the whole contents in the formula bar. What’s on the paper is all they get to see. So if your table is too wide to be printed, you can make some or all of the columns narrower until it does fit. But you need to be careful not to shrink any column to the point where the text in it is unusable.

The other reason to play around with column widths and row heights is for aesthetic purposes. If a column consists of “Y” and “N” entries, does it really need to be as wide as a column with people’s names?