Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Excel versions: 2007 and 2010. If you are using an earlier version (Excel 2003 or earlier), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for earlier versions of Excel, click here: Searching for Leading Apostrophes.

Searching for Leading Apostrophes

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated September 29, 2014)


Richard would like to be able to search for an apostrophe (') in the leftmost position in a cell, but Excel won't let him do it. In other words, if a cell contains '123 or 'a34tp, Richard would like to be able to find that leading apostrophe and, optionally, replace it with something else.

Doing what Richard wants to do takes a bit of preliminary explaining. Technically, it is a misnomer to refer to the apostrophe as a "leading character" or mentioning that it is in the "leftmost position" of a cell. Even though you may be able to look at the Formula bar and see the apostrophe at the beginning of the formula, that apostrophe is not really a part of the cell's contents; that is why you can't use Find and Replace to find and replace it.

The apostrophe is actually considered a "prefix character" for a cell. The possible values of the prefix character are set by the Transition Navigation Keys setting in Excel, and the value of the setting is saved on a workbook-by-workbook basis. You can change this setting by using the advanced area of the Excel Options dialog box (at the bottom of the dialog box).

If the setting is cleared (the default condition for the setting), then the value of the prefix character for each cell can either be blank or an apostrophe. If the cell contains text, then the setting of the prefix character doesn't really matter much. If the cell contents are not text, then setting the prefix character to an apostrophe forces Excel to treat the cell contents as if they are text. So, for instance, the number 123 is treated as text—not a number—and shows up in the Formula bar as '123.

If the Transition Navigation Keys setting is selected (the check box has a check mark in it), then the value of the prefix character for each cell can have one of five different values. These values are consistent with the prefixes used in Lotus 1-2-3 and are, oddly enough, supported in Excel only as a transitional aid to the regular usage in the program. The possible values are an apostrophe (left-justified), quote mark (right-justified), carat (centered), back slash (repeated), or blank (non-text item).

Now, back to Richard's original question: how to search and get rid of that leading apostrophe. You can't use Find and Replace to do the editing because the apostrophe isn't really part of the cell contents. So, you must do the changing in a macro. The changing is relatively easy. First, you'll want to make sure that the workbook has the Transition Navigation Keys setting cleared. Why? Because you probably don't want to mess up the prefix character for the cells if the workbook could be used at some future point with Lotus 1-2-3 again. You make sure that the setting is correct, in your macro, with the following line:

Application.TransitionNavigKeys = False

You can then step through a selection of cells and check to see if the prefix character for each cell is an apostrophe. If it is, then all you need to do is have the macro do the equivalent of manually retyping the contents of the cell, in the following manner:

For Each c In Selection
    If c.PrefixCharacter = "'" Then
        c.Value = c.Value
    End If
Next c

Note that the macro checks what is in the PrefixCharacter property. This property can be read in VBA, but it cannot be changed directly. That is why the macro needs to use the seemingly simple line to assign the value of each cell back into the cell—essentially retyping the contents.

If you would rather not use a macro to get rid of the apostrophe prefix characters, then you can take advantage of a strange little quirk of Paste Special. Follow these general steps:

  1. Select a blank cell and copy it to the Clipboard (use Ctrl+C).
  2. Select the range of cells from which you want to remove the prefix character.
  3. Display the Paste Special dialog box.
  4. Click the Add radio button.
  5. Click OK.

After the "adding" of the blank cell to each of the target cells, the prefix character—if any—is removed.

ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (10675) applies to Microsoft Excel 2007 and 2010. You can find a version of this tip for the older menu interface of Excel here: Searching for Leading Apostrophes.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He  is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...


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What is eight minus 3?

2014-05-09 05:03:50

Andreas H


Yes you are right, "my" solution doesn't work on text-strings with letters in it, only numbers stored as text.

2014-05-08 10:01:31


Andreas H
You are right - it works great for numbers with the leading apostrophe, but it doesn't seem to work for the other example Allen gave i.e. 'a34tp. I had to convert an old company phone directory - all entries stored with a leading apostrophe. This is simple, but worked well for me:

1) Select the column with the data containing leading apostrophes
2) Go to a new area of the worksheet, or new worksheet
3) From the Paste menu, choose Paste Values
4) All apostrophes gone!

2014-05-08 06:32:01

Michael (Micky) Avidan

It seems as I didn't understand the Task/Question.

The linked picture shows the results of "Find & Replace" applied on cells B1:B9 which, at the beginning, resembled to cells A1:A9.

Michael (Micky) Avidan
“Microsoft® Answers" - Wiki author & Forums Moderator
“Microsoft®” MVP – Excel (2009-2014)

2014-05-08 05:34:22

Andreas H

I just tested it again in excel 2007, it worked with a charm. ex:

1. write '1111 in a cell
2. select cell or cells
3. select "Text to coloums" in the "Data tools"-set
4. choose delimited
5. press next
6. make sure no boxes is checked (not really important)
7. press finish

The result, the leading ' is gone, and the numbers are recognized as numbers by excel.

2014-05-07 17:09:55

David Gardner

Allen's code works provided you've done the following with the code:
Add a new module to your workbook if none exists.

Put the code in the module.
The code could look something like this:

Sub RemovePrefixChars()
Application.TransitionNavigKeys = False
For Each c In Selection
If c.PrefixCharacter = "'" Then
c.Value = c.Value
End If
Next c
Application.TransitionNavigKeys = True
End Sub

The code expects you to select the cells that have the prefix characters before you run it.

This worked in Excel 2010 where I typed some numbers in a cell prefixed with the apostrophe. I copied that cell to a few cells below it, selected them, and then ran the code. I could tell that the code works, because the 'text' was aligned to the left in the cells, and then after the code ran, the numbers were aligned to the right.

2014-05-07 09:31:21


Andreas, I couldn't get your tip to work in Excel 2007. Am I missing something?

2014-05-07 08:23:52

Andreas H

If you want to clear this leading apostrophe from a coloum, you can use the "text-to-coloum"-tool.
Select the coloum, (or a part of it) choose delimited and uncheck all the "delimitation-options", click finish and you should be good to go!

2013-12-27 15:27:46


The macro loop in the ExcelTip is not preserving data when an apostrophe is the leading character. The leading apostrophe is migrated to PrefixCharacter, and the data in the cell is reduced by one character. Although it is possible to use Copy/PasteSpecial,Values and other processes such as TextToColumns and QueryTables to force a condition where PrefixCharacter is a null string and there is a leading apostrophe in the data; doing so is unstable, as pressing F2 or double-clicking the cell will migrate the leading apostrophe to PrefixCharacter. Here is a loop that preserves the data, tested on Excel 2007.

Sub clearPrefixCharacter()
Dim rCell as Range
Application.TransitionNavigKeys = False
For Each rCell In Selection
If rCell.PrefixCharacter = "'" Then
If Left(rCell.Value, 1) <> "'" Then
rCell.Value = rCell.Value
End If
End If
Next rCell
End Sub
I think that Microsoft should provide a rawText format that will not interpret data.

2012-11-21 11:51:42

Dave Unger

Thanks Lou, that was the answer I was looking for. Dave

2012-11-20 09:24:35


Excel 2010 does seem to play by different rules. Once you put a prefix character on a cell, as long as there is a text value in the cell, the prefix character persists. The only luck I've had in getting rid of them is to use the Format Painter to remove the persistent prefix. Select an "uninfected" cell, and paste the format to the desired cell.

The VBA Code to fix cell A2:
Range("A2").PasteSpecial Paste:=xlPasteFormats, Operation:=xlNone, _
SkipBlanks:=False, Transpose:=False
Application.CutCopyMode = False

2012-10-10 14:33:02


I have the same problem with Excel 2010. I would like to thank you for a generally well written article, I feel like I understand it much better now. As someone who has never had VBA training, I would appreciate the lead-in to the code to show what is necessary to run it. [i.e. Dim c as Range, etc...b/c I borrowed that snipet from previously attempted code.] Thanks.

2011-12-01 01:32:44

Dave Unger

Hi Allen,

Thanks for this great tip, exactly what I was looking for. The Copy/PasteSpecial method works well on all my 3 versions (2003/2007/2010). As does the macro in 2003/2007, but seems to have no effect in xl2010 (which is what I need, of course!). I've checked over everything carefully, even re-installed xl2010, but to no avail. Do you have any suggestions? Possibly an option setting, but haven't discovered it so far. Thank you,



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