Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Excel versions: 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Excel in Microsoft 365, and 2021. 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: Fixing Odd Sorting Behavior.

Fixing Odd Sorting Behavior

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated January 22, 2022)
This tip applies to Excel 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Excel in Microsoft 365, and 2021


Michael runs a karaoke company and uses Excel to create his song books. The worksheet contains three columns for song number, song title, and artist. Michael runs into odd behavior when sorting the song book by either artist or title.

For instance, when he sorts by artist the group 311 will come up in two different spots—four of their songs are placed right after the band 112 and before 702, and then it sorts the rest right after 3 of Hearts and before 38 Special. Then, when sorting by song, George Strait's song "True" always ends up as the last song in the list.

This obviously isn't want Michael wants to see happen when sorting. The reason it is happening, however, is due to the way that Excel interprets the information in each cell. When you enter information in a cell, Excel tries to parse that information and determine if it is a number, a date, or text. It just so happens that Excel is "guessing wrong" when it comes to some group and song titles.

When you enter the group 311, Excel considers that a number, so it treats it as a number. Similarly, when you enter the song title "True," Excel considers that a Boolean value—a number. (It would do the same thing if you had a song named "False.")

When performing a sort, Excel first sorts by the data type and then within the data type. 112 and 702 are numbers. 3 of Hearts and 38 Special are text because they don't consist of only digits. When sorting by artist, the group 311 shows up in two different places because the group name was parsed by Excel in some instances as a number and in other instances as text.

To understand how to correct the odd behavior, it is important to understand that the behavior isn't really odd; it is the logic Excel uses. If you want different results, you have to work with your data to make sure it is not parsed incorrectly by Excel.

First, if you sort in ascending order, the values in your cells will be sorted in these data types:

  • Numbers in increasing value (1, 2, 3, etc.)
  • Text in alphabetic order (a, b, c, etc.). If the text begins with a number (as in 38 Special), then the 3, as text, appears before the ABCs.
  • Logical values (False, True)
  • Error values (#DIV/0!, #N/A, etc.)
  • Blanks

If you sort in descending order, then the order is the reverse of what is shown here, except that blanks still appear as the last data type sorted.

You can better see the data types that Excel assigns to various cells by removing any explicit alignment in the cells. By default the text values are left-justified, numbers right-justified, and Boolean and error values centered.

To get things to sort the way you want, you just need to make sure that all the cells in a column contain the same type of data. In the case of both artist and song title, this would be text. In the cells being sorted as numbers (like 311), edit the cell to place an apostrophe before the first digit in the number. This tells Excel you want the cell's value treated as text. You can also do the same thing with "True."

ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (10767) applies to Microsoft Excel 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Excel in Microsoft 365, and 2021. You can find a version of this tip for the older menu interface of Excel here: Fixing Odd Sorting Behavior.

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. ...

MORE FROM ALLEN

Default Click and Type Paragraph Style

When you use the Click and Type feature, Word uses applies the Normal style to the paragraph created. You can specify a ...

Discover More

Inserting Summary Information

Want to insert into your document those snippets of information that you know Word maintains about your document? It's ...

Discover More

Microsoft Excel VBA Guidebook (Table of Contents)

Creating Excel macros allows you to extend your productivity with Excel. Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) is the ...

Discover More

Excel Smarts for Beginners! Featuring the friendly and trusted For Dummies style, this popular guide shows beginners how to get up and running with Excel while also helping more experienced users get comfortable with the newest features. Check out Excel 2013 For Dummies today!

More ExcelTips (ribbon)

Separating Cells Based on Text Color

If the font color used for the data in your worksheet is critical, you may at some time want to move cells that use a ...

Discover More

Sorting Data Containing Merged Cells

When formatting the layout of your worksheet, Excel allows you to easily merge adjacent cells together. This can cause ...

Discover More

Sorting Dates and Times

One of the strong features of Excel is its ability to sort information in a worksheet. When it doesn't sort information ...

Discover More
Subscribe

FREE SERVICE: Get tips like this every week in ExcelTips, a free productivity newsletter. Enter your address and click "Subscribe."

View most recent newsletter.

Comments

If you would like to add an image to your comment (not an avatar, but an image to help in making the point of your comment), include the characters [{fig}] (all 7 characters, in the sequence shown) in your comment text. You’ll be prompted to upload your image when you submit the comment. Maximum image size is 6Mpixels. Images larger than 600px wide or 1000px tall will be reduced. Up to three images may be included in a comment. All images are subject to review. Commenting privileges may be curtailed if inappropriate images are posted.

What is three less than 9?

There are currently no comments for this tip. (Be the first to leave your comment—just use the simple form above!)


This Site

Got a version of Excel that uses the ribbon interface (Excel 2007 or later)? This site is for you! If you use an earlier version of Excel, visit our ExcelTips site focusing on the menu interface.

Newest Tips
Subscribe

FREE SERVICE: Get tips like this every week in ExcelTips, a free productivity newsletter. Enter your address and click "Subscribe."

(Your e-mail address is not shared with anyone, ever.)

View the most recent newsletter.