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What Is Conditional Formatting?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2017
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2017
    Conjecture Corporation
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Conditional formatting allows a computer program to automatically apply styles to information in a document, as determined by a set of rules entered by the user. It is most commonly used in spreadsheeting, where users may want to be able to apply styles to differentiate particular items of data to make the document easier to read. Many software programs support this feature and it can also be manually programmed in if it is not available or is too limited for the user. One thing to be aware of is that in very large documents, conditional formatting can sometimes create errors, and the document may take longer to load because the program has to check all the data against the conditions before it can display.

In a simple example of conditional formatting, a user might be maintaining a transaction ledger in a spreadsheet where it would be helpful to have debits in red, and credits in green. This can allow the user to quickly identify key transactions at a glance, without having to manually format each entry. The user cat set these conditions, and the spreadsheet program will automatically apply the colors as directed. Other conditions could be added as well, like making text bold for entries that create a negative balance.

The limits of conditional formatting can depend on the program. Some only allow a set number of conditions. It is also important to be aware that the program may apply conditions in the order listed. Once it finds a match, it will stop checking for the other conditions. In this example, for instance, the order of the conditions is very important. If the color-coding is listed first, a debit that creates a negative balance would be red, but not bold.

This can be an extremely useful tool for the display of spreadsheets and similar documents. It can allow users to highlight specific kinds of data or entries of interest to make the information much easier to read. Conditional formatting also has some limitations to consider and it may help to read the documentation associated with a specific program to learn about what it can and cannot do. Some programs may allow users to create their own programming, in which case they may be able to work around problems with the conditional formatting options.

Users can reverse formatting by removing conditions and allowing the data to return to normal. It may be advisable to test rules on a small sample set of cells to see how they work before applying them to the entire document. This can allow the user to confirm that the formatting works as expected.

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