Save an hour of work a day with these 5 advanced Excel tricks

Work smarter, not harder. Sign up for our 5-day mini-course to receive must-learn lessons on getting Excel to do your work for you.

How to create beautiful table formatting instantly...

Why to rethink the way you do VLOOKUPs...

Plus, we'll reveal why you shouldn't use PivotTables and what to use instead...

Using Excel's LEFT formula

Excel's LEFT function works almost exactly the same as RIGHT. This handy formula allows you to pull a specified number of characters from a string, starting with the leftmost characters and working right. Use it to extract data that lies on the left-hand side of a string, like a City in a City, State combination.

Let's take a look at how this function works.

This tutorial will be easier to understand if you take a look at our RIGHT function tutorial first. It uses many of the same concepts!

Using the LEFT function

The syntax for the LEFT function is as follows:

=LEFT(text, num_characters (optional))

As you might guess, LEFT returns the leftmost num_characters characters of the text string you provide. Here are a couple of examples of LEFT in action:

=LEFT("San Francisco, CA", 3) Output: "San"

=LEFT("Chicago, IL", 7) Output: "Chicago"

=LEFT("Austin, USA", 6) Output: "Austin"

Like RIGHT, LEFT's num_characters argument is technically optional. If you exclude it, LEFT will pull only the single leftmost character in the given text string, like so:

=LEFT("Austin, USA" Output: "A"

Using LEFT with a variable num_characters argument

Like RIGHT, LEFT is also most commonly used with a variable num_characters argument to pull a particular substring based on a given delimiter. Take, for example, the following spreadsheet, in which we want to generate a formula to extract the name of a number of cities from City, State combinations:

In the above formula, we can't use a static num_characters, because the number of characters in each city name is variable. "Boston", for example, is a different length than "San Francisco".

So, we construct a more elaborate formula using the FIND function to find the character that separates cities from states, ",", and run LEFT based off of that:

=LEFT(B3, FIND(",",B3)-1) Output: "Boston"

What's happening here? First, Excel performs a FIND for the "," character, finding it at position 7 in the given string. We don't want to pull the 7 leftmost characters in the string "Boston, Massachusetts", because that would result in the string, "Boston," — with a comma at the end. So, we subtract 1 from the value given by our FIND function to get the number 6. We then use LEFT to take the leftmost 6 characters in the phrase, "Boston, Massachusetts", resulting in the string, "Boston".

Let's break things down step by step so we can get a better idea of what this function is doing:

Now that you have a good handle on Excel's LEFT formula, you can use it to extract data from strings that would otherwise be very difficult to handle. Enjoy!

Save an hour of work a day with these 5 advanced Excel tricks

Work smarter, not harder. Sign up for our 5-day mini-course to receive must-learn lessons on getting Excel to do your work for you.

How to create beautiful table formatting instantly...

Why to rethink the way you do VLOOKUPs...

Plus, we'll reveal why you shouldn't use PivotTables and what to use instead...