Excel Column Headings Show Numbers

Have you ever opened a workbook and found that the column headers show numbers instead of letters? The formula look strange too, showing references like RC[-1] instead of D2.
R1C1Formula
This is R1C1 reference style — a handy feature, and I use it sometimes when programming or setting up a workbook. Numbers on the column headings make it easier to set up formulas that need a column number, such as VLOOKUP. I don’t have to get fingerprints on my screen, as I count across to column R, where the lookup value is.

Video: Change Excel Column Headings from Numbers to Letters

To see why this happens, and how to switch the column headings back to letters, watch this short video tutorial. The written instructions are below the video.

Why It Happens

Maybe you’ve never heard of R1C1 reference style, and certainly didn’t change any settings. If you didn’t turn that option on, why did the numbers suddenly appear? Probably because someone sent you a workbook, and that’s the first Excel file that you opened today.
The first workbook that you open, when opening Excel, sets the reference style. For example, perhaps I built a workbook for you, and saved it while I was using R1C1 reference style. I sent you the workbook overnight, and it was the first thing you opened this morning. Surprise! There are numbers in the column headings.

Turn R1C1 Reference Style On or Off

If you close Excel, then open a workbook that you created yourself, with letters in the column headings,  that will change the reference style back to A1, which has letters in the column headings.
Or, to manually change the reference style, you can change the option setting.

In Excel 2010:

  1. At the left end of the Ribbon, click the File tab, then click Options.
    • Excel Options 2010
  2. Click the Formulas category.
  3. In the Working with Formulas section, add or remove the check mark from ‘R1C1 reference style’
  4. Click OK to close the Options window.

In Excel 2007:

  1. At the left end of the Ribbon, click the Office Button, then click Excel Options.
  2. Click the Formulas category.
  3. In the Working with Formulas section, add or remove the check mark from ‘R1C1 reference style’
  4. Click OK to close the Options window.

R1C1RefStyle

In Excel 2003 and earlier versions:

  1. On the Tools menu, click Options and select the General tab.
  2. Add or remove the check mark from ‘R1C1 reference style’
  3. Click OK to close the Options dialog box.

R1C1

Use a Macro to Switch Headings

If you frequently change the headings from numbers to letters, or letters to numbers, you can create a macro to do the work for you. There are instructions in this blog post: Excel VBA: Switch Column Headings to Numbers
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