Finds formula errors in spreadsheets (plugin for Microsoft Excel)
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Finds formula errors in spreadsheets (plugin for Microsoft Excel)

By Dan Barowy (Williams College), Emery Berger (UMass Amherst), Ben Zorn (Microsoft Research).

Table of Contents


term meaning
ExceLint ExceLint is a static analysis that finds formula errors in spreadsheets.
ExceLint UI The ExceLint UI is an implementation of the ExceLint analysis, written as a plugin for Microsoft Excel on Windows.
Workbook An Excel file is called a workbook. Workbooks usually end in .xls or .xlsx
Worksheet An Excel workbook usually contains many spreadsheets; each spreadsheet is called a worksheet. You can navigate worksheets in Excel by using the tabs on the bottom left of the workbook.
Ribbon The ribbon is a user interface component that groups buttons together. Buttons are grouped by function and organized by function, with that function's name appearing in the tabs at the top of the ribbon. The ribbon is usually found at the top of a workbook, just under the Excel window's title bar.
Formula A formula is an Excel expression. All Excel formulas are purely functional. Every formula is prefixed by a = character.
Reference A reference in Excel is a syntactic construct that indicates where another cell's value should be substitued into a formula during evaluation. For example, the formula =A1+A2 means that the values stored in cells A1 and A2 should be substituted into the expression where A1 and A2 occur, respectively, when the formula is evaluated.
Reference shape Two formulas are reference equivalent if they refer to the same cell offsets, relative to the position of the formula itself. Such formulas are said to have the same reference shape. Refer to the definition of reference equivalence on page 4 of our paper for further elaboration.
Vector fingerprint Each reference in a formula induces a reference vector, which is a vector encoding of the reference relative to the location of the formula itself. Since a formula may have multiple refernces, it induces a set of vectors. For performance reasons, ExceLint "compresses" this set of vectors into a single vector, called the vector fingerprint. See section 4.1.1. on page 10 of the paper for further elaboration.
Formula error A formula error is a formula that deviates from the intended reference shape by either including an extra reference, omitting a reference, or misreferencing data. We also include manifestly wrong calculations in this category, such as choosing the wrong operation.


ExceLint is a static analysis that finds formula errors in spreadsheets.

In order to use ExceLint, you will need to install the ExceLint UI plugin on a Windows machine that has a copy of Office 2016. This guide provides an installation walkthrough as well as instructions for running the tool.

We tested ExceLint using Windows 10/Windows Server 2016 and Excel 2016. While ExceLint works in principle with other versions of Windows and Excel (e.g., Excel 2010/2013), we have not tested these alternative configurations and do not recommend using them.


The following technical paper describes how ExceLint works and includes an extensive empirical evaluation: ExceLint: Automatically Finding Spreadsheet Formula Errors, Daniel W. Barowy (Williams College), Emery D. Berger (University of Massachusetts Amherst), Benjamin Zorn (Microsoft Research). In Proceedings of the ACM on Programming Languages, Volume 2, Number OOPSLA.

Software Needed:

  1. Microsoft Windows 10 or Microsoft Windows Server 2016
  2. Microsoft Office 365 (2016):
  3. (optionally) ExceLint source code
  4. (optionally) Visual Studio 2017: (we use the Professional edition; Community may also work)


You will need working copies of Windows, Office 2016 before installing.


  1. Download an ExceLint release.
  2. Double-click on the ExceLintInstaller.exe installer.
  3. Follow the prompts to complete installation.
  4. Start Microsoft Excel.
  5. There should be an ExceLint tab available on the Excel ribbon. If the ExceLint tab is missing, see the Troubleshooting section.

A Short ExceLint UI Tutorial

  1. Launch Excel.
  2. Click Open Other Workbooks
  3. Select an Excel file (workbook) of your choosing. A good first demonstration is the benchmark file act3_lab23_posey.xls, which is small enough to examine fully.
  4. After opening your workbook, look for the ExceLint tab in the Excel ribbon. If this is the only Excel plugin you have installed, it will be the rightmost tab in the ribbon. Click on the ExceLint tab.


Note: You may want to refer to the Troubleshooting section below as Excel's security mechanisms sometimes prevent the ExceLint user interface from running; we detail solutions for common problems in that section.

Proposed Fix Tool (step-by-step audit)

  1. To ask ExceLint for a step-by-step guided audit for the current worksheet, click the Audit audit button button.
  2. After a brief analysis delay (you should see a progress bar), ExceLint will highlight a suspected formula error, if it locates one.
    • Two groups of cells are highlighted: the suspected error in red, and a group of closely related formulas in green.
    clear everything button * You should interpret this display as suggesting a "proposed fix." The visualization is suggesting that the cell(s) highlighted in red should be rewritten to have the same _reference shape_ (see glossary) as the the cells(s) highlighted in green. * To see Excel's formula view, press ``Ctrl-` ``
  3. To obtain the next error candidate, click the Next Cell next cell button button.
  4. To stop the audit, click the Clear Everything clear everything button button.

Note that the tool currently does not make any provisions for users changing (e.g., fixing) cells while an audit is in progress. Such changes will not be reflected in the analysis unless it is re-run.

Global view

The global view provides a global visualization of all the regions of the current worksheet. Click the Show Global View global view button button to see the visualization. Click Hide Global View to clear the visualization.

You should interpret each contiguous region of cells having the same color as having the same reference shape. Note that to cut down on visual clutter, the coloring algorithm does not assign colors to whitespace or strings, and all numeric data is given the same color.

Our preferred manner of working with ExceLint is to switch between the Proposed Fix Tool and the Global View. The Proposed Fix Tool quickly identifies potential problems while the Global View provides context that sometimes helps determine whether a flagged cell is truly a bug.

Building and Running ExceLint from Source Code

You may download the latest source code for ExceLint using git. ExceLint is a Visual Studio 2017 solution.


$ git clone --recursive

We do a --recursive checkout above because ExceLint depends on a number of subprojects developed by our group. The following table describes the libraries used by ExceLint in the ExceLint solution. Some of these projects are for ancillary software used to research purposes.

Solution Walkthrough

library purpose language
AnnotationStats A console program that prints statistics about the ground truth annotations F#
COMWrapper A wrapper that ensures that reference-counted Excel COM objects are correctly disposed of by managed (.NET) code. C#
COMWrapperTests A unit test suite for COMWrapper. C#
CUSTODESParser A parser for CUSTODES tool outputs. F#
Depends A library that efficiently extracts a spreadsheet's dependence graph. C#
DependsTests A unit test suite for Depends C#
ExceLint This library contains the core static analysis. F#
ExceLintCLIGenerator A defunct UI used during development to make it easy to call the benchmark runner C#
ExceLintFileFormats A library that defines file formats needed by the ExceLint runner to read input files and to produce output files. C#
ExceLintInstaller An InstallShield project used to produce the release installer used for this project. InstallShield
ExceLintRunner A console program used to run ExceLint in benchmark mode. F#
ExceLintRunnerTests A unit test suite for ExceLintRunner C#
ExceLintTests A unit test suite for ExceLint C#
ExceLintUI This library is the top-level project that produces a plugin for Microsoft Excel. It is implemented using the Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) API. The ExceLint UI manages the UI layer, mostly forwarding calls to the ExceLint library. C#
ExcelParser A parser that produces ASTs for Excel formulas. F#
ExcelParserConsole A console program that displays the AST for a given Excel formula F#
FParsec A third-party parser combinator library. F#
FParsecCS Low-level routines for FParsec C#
ParcelCOMShim A library that facilitates calling ExcelParser on Excel COM types F#
ParcelTest Unit test suite for ExcelParser C#
StatsGatherer A console program that crawls a collection of Excel workbooks and gathers statistics about them F#

Building ExceLint

You will need an installed copy of Microsoft Visual Studio 2017 in order to build ExceLint.

  1. Open the ExceLint.sln file using Visual Studio.
  2. Right-click on the ExceLintUI project in the Solution Explorer pane and select Set as StartUp Project.
  3. Select the Debug -> Start Debugging option from the menu. This will compile ExceLint, install the VSTO plugin into Excel, and start Excel in a debugging session. You can set breakpoints in Visual Studio, which may be triggered by interacting with the plugin.


A variety of problems can occasionally pop up when using or building ExceLint.

Problem: ExceLint does nothing when I click on the buttons in the UI.

Solution: Excel will not allow ExceLint to run when it is in "Protected Mode". If it is, there will be a yellow bar across the top of the spreadsheet to that effect. You will need to click the Enable Editing button to allow ExceLint to run.

Problem: You started the ExceLint runner but had to force quit it using Ctrl-C. Now there are a bunch of excel.exe instances running in the background.

Solution: You can force quit all running instances of Excel by typing taskkill /f /im excel.exe into the cmd.exe command prompt.

Problem: The Clear Everything button does not clear everything.

Solution: We occasionally find and try to squash bugs where the UI is out of sync with the analysis. We may have missed a corner case or two. If you find that you cannot clear visualizations, close the reopen the workbook without saving the workbook. It is important that you do not save the workbook when you close it, otherwise the visualizations themselves will overwrite the default formatting in the workbook!

Problem: Excel reported that it was "running into problems with the 'excelint' add-on", asked me if I wanted to disable it and I clicked Yes. Now ExceLint has disappeared from the ribbon menu in Excel.

Solution: This is a "feature" of Excel: it disables plugins that cause Excel to crash. Unfortunately, it also interprets halting the program using the debugging tools as a "crash." You can re-enable ExceLint by completing the following steps:

  1. Open a file in Excel (any file).
  2. Click the File menu.
  3. Click the Options button on the bottom left of the screen.
  4. Click the Add-Ins option in the menu that appears.
  5. You should see ExceLint under the heading Disabled Application Add-Ins list (you may have to scroll down).
  6. In the Manage drop down, select COM Add-Ins and click the Go... button.
  7. Check the unchecked ExceLint checkbox and click the OK button.
  8. ExceLint should now appear in the Ribbon. If it does not, perform the next steps.
  9. Again, click File, click Options, select Add-Ins.
  10. In the Manage drop down, select Disabled Items and click the Go... button.
  11. In the menu that appears, select ExceLint and click the Enable button, then repeat steps 1-7.
  12. If ExceLint still does not re-appear, uninstall ExceLint, delete the direcotry C:\Program Files (x86)\, log out of the user account, log back in, and reinstall ExceLint using the installer.
  13. If that does not work, contact the authors for additional support.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CCF-1617892. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.