Counting Asterisks in a Column

Steven uses Excel for a personalized movie database. In one column he has the rating he’s given to each movie on a one-to-four scale, defined by using one, two, three, or four asterisks. He wants to add info showing how many ‘*’ movies he has, how many ‘**’ movies he has, etc. Steven has figured out how to count the number of ‘*’ movies, but when he tries to count how many ‘**’ movies are in the column the figure is wrong.

There are multiple ways that this can be handled, but first a comment about the choice of asterisks for a purpose such as this: In the grand scheme of things that is Excel, the asterisk has many purposes. It is used most often in formulas as the multiplication symbol and, almost as often, as a wildcard symbol in many formula arguments. For this reason, it is not a particularly good idea to use the asterisk for other purposes, particularly for items that you want to count, as with the movie ratings. It may be better, in this case, to simply use a number 1 through 4 for the ratings, because the numbers are very easy to work with and are unambiguous in their usage.

If you must use asterisks, then there are several ways you can put together a formula to do the counts. The SUMPRODUCT function will do the work nicely. Assuming the asterisks are in column C, you could use the following:

=SUMPRODUCT(--(C:C="*")*1)
=SUMPRODUCT(--(C:C="**")*1)
=SUMPRODUCT(--(C:C="***")*1)
=SUMPRODUCT(--(C:C="****")*1)

You could also use SUMPRODUCT a bit differently to simply check the length of whatever is in column C. This approach works well if C contains just asterisks, but will also work if you use something different than asterisks:

=SUMPRODUCT(--(LEN(C:C)=1))
=SUMPRODUCT(--(LEN(C:C)=2))
=SUMPRODUCT(--(LEN(C:C)=3))
=SUMPRODUCT(--(LEN(C:C)=4))

You can also use the straight SUM function, but the following formulas must be entered using Ctrl+Shift+Enter. (They are array formulas.)

=SUM(IF(C:C="*",1,0))
=SUM(IF(C:C="**",1,0))
=SUM(IF(C:C="***",1,0))
=SUM(IF(C:C="****",1,0))

Note that the examples so far use summing functions, specifically SUMPRODUCT and SUM. These functions don’t have the problem mentioned earlier of misunderstanding the asterisk. You do run into the problem when using counting functions, though. For instance, the following will not give the desired results:

=COUNTIF(C:C,"*")

The asterisk functions as a wildcard character, matching anything in a cell. Thus, you end up with a count of all cells in column C that contain anything. You can specify that you want the asterisk treated as a literal character (instead of as a wildcard) by preceding it with a tilde, in this manner:

=COUNTIF(C:C,"~*")

When it comes to two asterisks, you might think that this will work:

=COUNTIF(C:C,"~**")

It won’t; Excel interprets this as “a single literal asterisk followed by anything.” In other words, the first asterisk is literal and the second is still a wildcard. It is each of the asterisks which must be preceded by tildes, in this manner:

=COUNTIF(C:C,"~*")
=COUNTIF(C:C,"~*~*")
=COUNTIF(C:C,"~*~*~*")
=COUNTIF(C:C,"~*~*~*~*")

Finally, if you want to skip using formulas all together, you could create a PivotTable that references the rating column for your movies. If you use that column as a row in the PivotTable and change the aggregation method so that it does a count of contents of the cells in the column, you can get a nice summary of how many of each type of rating you’ve awarded your movies.