Rows and Columns

It’s very easy to take for granted that my clients are aware of computing concepts

No, not that sort of header

I’ve been working with PCs since the days when we called them “micro computers” (early to mid 1980’s). Goodness knows how much of the stuff I’ve come across in that time has rightly slipped into oblivion. However, there’s also a lot of other stuff that has become second nature, and it’s very easy to assume that it’s second nature for everyone else, too. And that, of course, is not true.

A client emailed me a few days ago to say that his Outlook email inbox had changed to only showing him the size of the email. I replied with something to the effect that we needed to look at the inbox columns as he might have hidden some or changed their order. His response was that he didn’t know what columns were.

That set me thinking. This is some basic stuff that it is very useful to get to grips with as there are many places where it is useful – email lists, spreadsheets, file organisation, to name but three. Not only that, but the idea of tables with rows and columns applies to PCs, Macs, phones, and tablets.

Columns and Rows - Spreadsheets
Figure 1

Consider Figure 1. This is a very simple spreadsheet. In spreadsheets, everything is explicitly divided up into “cells”. A cell is the area between two adjacent vertical lines and two adjacent horizontal ones. In this example, the cells containing the years are one on top of the other. At the top is the letter “A”. All of the cells below the letter “A” are called a column. In spreadsheets each column is given an identifier (in this case, “A”). So, all the “years” are in column “A”. The row and column identifers are also called the row and column headers.

Now look across at, for instance, the cells that refer to the “Totals”. These are adjacent cells in a horizontal line. All the cells adjacent in a horizontal direction are called a “row”. So, the information about the Total figures is contained in row 6.

It is easy to remember that columns always go up and down (think of the columns in a classical building) and that rows go across (think of the rows of seats in a theatre).

Now, there are any number of very clever and geeky things we can do with spreadsheets once we realise that each cell can be addressed by its row and column number (eg the word “Pears” is in cell C5 (column “C”, row “5”)), but there are also some very simple and useful things we can do with the concepts in, for instance, email and file displays.

Columns and Rows - File Explorer
Figure 2

Consider Figure 2. This is a small chunk of a Windows File Explorer display of some files, showing the file names, the date that the files were last modified, and the size of the files. The columns are the specific pieces of information – Name, Date Modified, and Size. The rows are each file in the display. If your eyes are better than mine, you might be able to see something like a letter “V” over the text of the “Date Modified” column. This indicates that the rows are sorted by Date Modified (new files at the top and old files at the bottom). Now, the clever thing is that if we click on any column header, then the data is immediately sorted by that column.

So, to put the files in alphabetical name order we would just click on the column header “Name”. If we click on the currently sorted column header again it sorts in the other direction. Clicking on a column header to sort the data on that column works in email programs (including webmail) and in file organisation (eg File Explorer and Finder in Windows and Max OSX respectively).

There are two other clever things we can do with tables of data such as file displays:

We can change the order in which the columns appear. Left-click on a column header and drag the header either to the right or left and you will see that the entire column moves to the right or left.

We can choose to remove some columns from the display and add other columns. In a Windows 10 File Explorer listing, for instance, you can right-click on any column header and remove the tick from the header name of any columns you do not wish to display. In many contexts (eg Microsoft Outlook Mail and Window File Explorer), there are lots of columns that are usually hidden but which you can choose to display depending on your needs. We don’t have the room to go into that here.

The precise options available in displaying tables of data differ depending on the program and the operating system (eg Apple Mac displays may differ from Apple iPhone), but if you wish to display any table of data differently, it’s worth trying to click (or right-click) on the column header in the manner described above, and see what happens.

(Last updated 09/07/2021)