Contextures

Sort Data in Excel & Avoid Problems

How to sort in Excel list by row or column. Tips show how to avoid painful mistakes when sorting. How to sort multiple columns, rows, or sort in custom order. Videos, and Excel workbook.

Avoid Sorting Trouble: Check Your Data

1) Make a Backup of Your Data

Be sure to make a backup copy of your Excel file, before you start sorting the data. Then, you can go back to the saved version, if anything goes wrong.

Tip: For a quick and easy backup copy, get my free Excel Backup tool. This tool makes a backup copy in the current folder, and does NOT affect the active workbook. The backup tool is in xlam format, so it's easy to install on your computer - just like any other Excel file.

2) Check Your Data

Before you sort data in Excel, be sure there are no blank rows or columns within the data. The steps below show how to do that.

Why is it important to check your data?

  • If there is a blank row or blank column in the data, part of the data might be sorted, while other data is not sorted.
  • You could end up with names and phone numbers that don't match, or orders with the wrong customer address.

How to Check For Blank Rows or Columns

To help prevent sorting problems, follow these steps before you sort Excel data:

  1. Select one cell in the column you want to sort.
  2. Press Ctrl + A, to select the entire region.
  3. Check the selected area, to make sure that all the data is included.
    • For example, in the screen shot below, hidden column E is blank
    • After pressing Ctrl+A, columns F, G (hidden), H and I are not selected.

sort hidden column

3) Fix Blank Rows and Columns

  1. If some of the data was NOT selected, find the blank rows or columns
    • You might need to unhide rows or columns, to find the blank ones
  2. After you find a blank row or column:
    • If the blank row or column is not needed, delete it
    • If the blank row or column IS needed, enter at least one item in the row or column.
      • For example, type an "x" in a column heading, as a placeholder.

Then, after you fix any blank columns or rows:

  • Press Ctrl + A again, to see if the entire region is selected.
    • If not, look for other blank rows or columns, and delete or fill them
    • If the entire region IS selected, the data can be safely sorted

Quick Sort With Sort Buttons

In Excel, you can quickly sort your data by using the A-Z and Z-A buttons on the Ribbon's Data tab.

Follow these steps to sort with the Quick Sort buttons:

  1. Select one cell in the column you want to sort.
  2. On the Excel Ribbon, click the Data tab.
  3. Click Sort A to Z (smallest to largest) or Sort Z to A (largest to smallest)
    • data tab sort a-z

Check the Results

Immediately after sorting, and before you do anything else:

  • Check the sorted data, to see if the data has been sorted correctly.

If anything looks incorrect, or out of order:

  • Immediately click the Undo button on the toolbar

Sort Buttons on Quick Access Toolbar

If you sort frequently, you can add the Sort buttons to your Quick Access Toolbar (QAT). That makes it even easier to do a quick sort in Excel. There are "how to" steps on the Quick Access Toolbar page. that show how to add buttons.

Then, to use those Sort buttons, follow the steps in the Quick Sort with A-Z Buttons section, but use the QAT buttons instead.

sort buttons on quick access toolbar

Sort Two or More Columns

If you want to sort 2 or more columns in an Excel table, use the Sort dialog box.

In this example, the table contains personal data, and it will be sorted by 3 columns:

  1. First, by Gender
  2. Next, by State
  3. Finally, by Birth Year

Follow these steps to safely sort by the 3 columns:

  1. Select all the cells in the list.
    This is the safest approach to sorting. In most cases, you can select one cell and Excel will correctly detect the rest of the list -- but it's not 100% certain. Some of the data may be missed.
  2. On the Excel Ribbon, click the Data tab.
  3. In the Sort & Filter group, click the Sort button.
  4. data tab sort

  5. Click the Add Level button, to add the first sorting level.
  6. From the Sort by dropdown, select the first column you want to sort. In this example, Gender will be the first column sorted.
  7. sort by drop down

Note: If the dropdown is showing Column letters instead of headings, add a check mark to My data has headers.

    my data has headers

  1. From the Sort On drop down, select the option that you want. We're sorting on the values in the Gender column, so leave the default setting of Values.
  2. sort on values

  3. Next, from the Order drop down, select one of the options. The list of Order options will depend on what you selected in the Sort On column. Because we selected values, the Order options are A to Z, Z to A and Custom List. We'll select A to Z.
  4. sort order options

  5. If you are sorting on multiple columns, click the Add Level button, to add the next level, and select options from its drop down boxes.

    Here we have selected Gender, State and BirthYr as the sort fields, and all are sorted on Values. Because the BirthYr column contains only numbers, its Order options are slightly different from the text column options.

    sort order numbers

  6. After you have selected all the Sort levels, and their options, click OK.

The data will be sorted in the order that you specified. In the screen shot below:

  • Gender column is sorted first, so all the female names are at the top.
  • Next, the State column is sorted, so females from Alabama are at the top of the list.
  • Finally, the BirthYr is sorted, with the earliest birth years at the top of each state.go to top

    list sorted by 3 columns

Sort in a Custom Order

In the Sort dialog box, or on the Excel Ribbon, you can select a sort order, such as A to Z, or Largest to Smallest. In addition to these standard options, you can sort in a custom order, such as month order, or weekday order. In this example, we'll sort a column with weekday names, using the Excel Ribbon command.

Watch the steps for doing a custom sort in the Sort Custom Order video, or follow the written instructions, below the video.

Sort in a Custom Order

In the Sort dialog box, or on the Excel Ribbon, you can select a sort order, such as A to Z, or Largest to Smallest. In addition to these standard options, you can sort in a custom order, such as month order, or weekday order. In this example, we'll sort a column with weekday names, using the Excel Ribbon comman

To sort in a custom order, follow these steps:

  1. Select one cell in the column you want to sort.
  2. Press Ctrl + A, to select the entire region.
  3. Check the selected area, to make sure that all the data is included.
  4. On the Excel Ribbon, click the Home tab
  5. In the Editing group, click the arrow on Sort & Filter.
  6. Click Custom Order.
  7. custom sort command

  8. In the Sort dialog box, select the Day column in the Sort By box.
  9. From the Order drop down, select Custom List.
  10. select custom list

  11. In the Custom dialog box, select a custom list and then click OK, twice, to close the dialog boxes.

    select weekday custom list

The Day column is sorted in weekday order, instead of alphabetical order, so Sunday appears at the top of the list.go to top

sorted by weekday

Sorting a Row

Instead of sorting your data by columns, you can sort the data by row. In this example, we'll sort a table of monthly sales, so the month with the largest sales total is at the left. To do this, we'll use a right-click popup menu.

You can see the steps in this short Sort by Row video, and read the detailed instructions below.

Sorting a Row

Instead of sorting your data by columns, you can sort the data by row. In this example, we'll sort a table of monthly sales, so the month with the largest sales total is at the left. To do this, we'll use a right-click popup menu.

To sort by a row, follow these steps:

  1. Select one cell in the row you want to sort.
  2. Press Ctrl + A, to select the entire region.
  3. Check the selected area, to make sure that all the data is included.
  4. Right-click a cell in the row that you want to sort
  5. In the popup menu, click Sort, then click Custom Sort.
  6. custom sort popup menu

  7. In the Sort dialog box, select the Day column in the Sort By box.
  8. From the Order drop down, select Custom List.
  9. At the top of the Sort dialog box, click Options.
  10. sort options button

  11. In the Options dialog box, under Orientation, select Sort Left to Right.
  12. sort left to right

  13. Click OK, to close the Options dialog box.
  14. From the Sort By drop down, select the row that you want to sort. There are no headings available, so select the correct Row number.
  15. select row to sort by

  16. Select the Sort On, and the Order options, then click OK.

The data is sorted by the values in the selected row. go to top

sorted by total row

Sort Data by Cell Icon

Watch this short video to see the steps for adding cell icons, and sorting by the selected cell's icon. There are written steps below the video.

When you create a named Excel table, or apply an AutoFilter to a list, each heading cell gets a drop down arrow. Click that arrow, and you'll see a variety of sorting and filtering options for the data.

drop down list to sort and filter

If you add conditional formatting icons to one of the columns, you can also sort by those icons. In the screen shot below, Traffic light icons are being added to the Quantity column.

add traffic light icons

Sort by Selected Cell Icon

After adding icons, the quickest way to sort by a specific icon is:

  1. Right-click on a cell that contains the icon you want at the top of the list
  2. In the pop-up menu, click Sort
  3. Click Put Selected Cell Icon On Top

sort by icon

The list is sorted, to move all items with the selected icon to the top of the list.

Other items are not sorted, and the items that were moved to the top of the list are left in their original order, within that group.

list sorted by icon

Sort With Heading Drop Down List

After you have added cell icons, you can also sort by icon from the drop down list in the heading.

  1. Click the drop down arrow in the heading cell
  2. Click Sort by Color
  3. Click on an icon, to move it to the top of the list

list sorted by icon

Sort Sample Workbook

To try the sorting techniques, get the Sort sample workbook. The file is in xlsx file format, and is zipped. It does not contain any macros.

More Tutorials

Sort Data With Macros

Sort Data - Excel 2003 Basics

Pivot Table Sorting

Sort a Row in Excel

Numbers Don't Sort Correctly

 

Last updated: October 23, 2021 11:49 AM
Contextures RSS Feed