Counting Asterisks in a Column

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated July 7, 2018)


Steven uses Excel for a personalized movie database. In one column he has the rating he's given to each movie on a one-to-four scale, defined by using one, two, three, or four asterisks. He wants to add info showing how many '*' movies he has, how many '**' movies he has, etc. Steven has figured out how to count the number of '*' movies, but when he tries to count how many '**' movies are in the column the figure is wrong.

There are multiple ways that this can be handled, but first a comment about the choice of asterisks for a purpose such as this: In the grand scheme of things that is Excel, the asterisk has many purposes. It is used most often in formulas as the multiplication symbol and, almost as often, as a wildcard symbol in many formula arguments. For this reason, it is not a particularly good idea to use the asterisk for other purposes, particularly for items that you want to count, as with the movie ratings. It may be better, in this case, to simply use a number 1 through 4 for the ratings, because the numbers are very easy to work with and are unambiguous in their usage.

If you must use asterisks, then there are several ways you can put together a formula to do the counts. The SUMPRODUCT function will do the work nicely. Assuming the asterisks are in column C, you could use the following:


You could also use SUMPRODUCT a bit differently to simply check the length of whatever is in column C. This approach works well if C contains just asterisks, but will also work if you use something different than asterisks:


You can also use the straight SUM function, but the following formulas must be entered using Ctrl+Shift+Enter. (They are array formulas.)


Note that the examples so far use summing functions, specifically SUMPRODUCT and SUM. These functions don't have the problem mentioned earlier of misunderstanding the asterisk. You do run into the problem when using counting functions, though. For instance, the following will not give the desired results:


The asterisk functions as a wildcard character, matching anything in a cell. Thus, you end up with a count of all cells in column C that contain anything. You can specify that you want the asterisk treated as a literal character (instead of as a wildcard) by preceding it with a tilde, in this manner:


When it comes to two asterisks, you might think that this will work:


It won't; Excel interprets this as "a single literal asterisk followed by anything." In other words, the first asterisk is literal and the second is still a wildcard. It is each of the asterisks which must be preceded by tildes, in this manner:


Finally, if you want to skip using formulas all together, you could create a PivotTable that references the rating column for your movies. If you use that column as a row in the PivotTable and change the aggregation method so that it does a count of contents of the cells in the column, you can get a nice summary of how many of each type of rating you've awarded your movies.

ExcelTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Excel training. This tip (12849) applies to Microsoft Excel 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Excel in Office 365.

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 nine more than 3?

2017-09-06 10:47:54


Thanks Micky, I'd never heard of the "N" function before.

2014-01-07 09:21:10

Michael (Micky) Avidan

In most cases (if not all) there is a third way:
The function "N" converts TRUE into 1 and FALSE into 0.

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

2014-01-06 10:44:52


The article doesn't explain the purpose of the -- (double unary) and the *1 in the SUMPRODUCT formulas.

Since the comparisons result in a TRUE/FALSE result, and Excel can only sum numbers, you need to convert TRUE to 1 and FALSE to 0; this process is called coercion. You can coerce boolean values to numeric by using them in a numerical expression. The two easiest ways are the double unary, --, which multiplies the boolean by -1 twice, or by multiplying by 1. Each give you the same thing, but I personally find multiplying by 1 the most clear.

As has been mentioned in the comments, there's no reason to coerce the value twice; you need either the -- or *1, but not both.

2013-12-26 16:23:26


One more thing...

If using the SUM(IF...) solution, the formula for row and column headers is


2013-12-26 15:45:03


I learned a lot from this. Thanks to you Alan, and everyone who contributed. Specifically, I had never learned to use SUMPRODUCT nor did I know how to use the tilde as an escape.

I like to put things in tables with labels. For these example, each row for the summary is labeled in Column A, i.e. A1=*, A2=**. The ratings for the movies are in Column J.

The SUMPRODUCT and SUM (Array) frmulas are very straightforward

I found that I could also use COUNTIF if I used a SUBSTITUTE function to replace each asterisk with tilde-asterisk ("~*")

If I want to add category labels in Row 1 (e.g. Comedy, Noir, Silent, Musical), I can change the COUNTIF to a COUNTIFS and just add the information for the column label:

And that gets me to what I vote for as the best solution: Use a PivotTable, it's much simpler to do.

2013-12-23 11:29:51

Gerald Diamond

I am not sure why one needs both the -- and the *1 in the first version

Leaving out the *1 seems to work just as well in my version (2010)

Other variations that give the same result include

and oddly

2013-12-23 10:59:15

Gerald Diamond

I found this instructive but have some questions. I am using 2010 and found that I could drop either the "--" or the "*1" and get the same results. Dropping both didn't seem to work. So I am not quite sure that I really understand the need for both or what they each do.
I did find that, in this example anyway, replacing the two with
also seemed to work.

2013-12-21 20:52:48

Peter Atherton

If I used the COUNTIF function I'd probably also include the REPT function


and copy down

2013-12-21 13:18:18


Excellent answer, thank you very much!

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