Formula auditing and tracing calculations in Excel

aat comment

Excel 2013 includes a set of formula auditing tools in the Formula Auditing group of the FORMULAS ribbon. These tools allow users to see the relationships between formulas and cells.

Within the formula auditing section are the following tools:

Trace Precedents and Trace Dependents

The Trace Precedents and Trace Dependents options use arrows to show how an individual cell links to other cells, or is linked to from other cells.

Things are relatively straightforward when all the related cells are on the same worksheet. Excel will draw arrows from the active cell to the related cell or cells. However, even on the same sheet, there are a couple of capabilities that might not be immediately obvious.

The first time you click the ‘Trace’ button the cells that link directly to/from the active cell will be ‘arrowed’. Here we have selected cell H9 and clicked the Trace Precedents button:

We can see that H9 includes a reference to the range of cells B4:B8

If we click on the button again, cells that link directly to the first set of precedent cells will gain arrows and so on through to the cells that link directly and indirectly to the active cell.

The arrows themselves can be double-clicked. This will toggle the selection between the cells at either end of the arrow. The arrows can be removed using the Remove Arrows button in the Formula Auditing group.

If a cell links to another sheet then, instead of pointing at an actual cell, the Trace Precedents and Trace Dependents arrows will be dotted and point to a small picture of a worksheet. To see the details of the cells that relate to the selected cell, double-click the arrow itself (not the worksheet icon). This will display the Go To dialog with the related cells listed. Double-clicking on one of the cells listed in the Go To list will select that cell:

Display formulae

Switching from the display of cell values to cell formulae can help reveal inconsistent use of formulae or formulae that have been overwritten. You can switch to the display of formulae using FORMULAS ribbon tab> Formula Auditing group> Show Formulas:

Watch Window

The FORMULAS ribbon tab> Formula Auditing group, also includes the Watch Window option.

This lets you add cells from anywhere in the current workbook and displays their current values. The Watch Window is within Excel the application, so if you have multiple workbooks open you can switch workbooks and add cells from other workbooks to the Watch Window. You can’t switch to a different workbook from within the Add Watch window.

The window displays the ‘live’ value of all the cells, from whichever open workbook, that have been added to the window. As well as displaying cell values, the Watch Window also allows you to navigate to any of the watched cells just by double-clicking them:

Formula evaluator

Sometimes a formula might not give the result that you expect. If the formula is complex, maybe containing several functions, then it can be difficult working out just where the formula is going wrong. The FORMULAS ribbon tab> Formula Auditing section, includes the Evaluate Formula option. This evaluates each element of a formula individually:

Error Checker

Excel has a set of built-in rules to identify cells that might need attention. Some of the rules are obvious such as ‘Cells containing formulas that result in an error’ while others depend on slightly more subtle circumstances. The Error Checking settings and status of the individual rules can be accessed throughFILE> Options> Formulas> Error Checking and Error checking rules sections:

AAT members have free access to this and many other Excel Tips through their MyAAT account. To continue exploring more Excel tips please click here.


Alan Gurney is AAT Comment’s Excel tips writer.

Related articles