An Open Letter to Microsoft Excel

Dear Microsoft,

When it comes to Excel, I am an avid and longtime user. I realize the word “user” may accidentally evoke drug use, but that’s actually kind of accurate, because I can dose on Excel all night.

(I mean, if an addiction is an obsessive habit that hampers your functioning in life, then what else do you call the fact that I keep cobbling together unwieldy spreadsheets instead of practicing actual coding?)

So please hear me when I say this: You must add the function MEAN to Excel.

At present, when I want to calculate an arithmetic mean, I must use the “AVERAGE” function. This is humiliating. It is degrading.

It is as if Excel is testing my loyalty by demanding that I lick dirt.

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The word “average” belongs to everyday English, not to precise mathematics. Yes, in most contexts (e.g., “average test score”), we interpret it as referring to the arithmetic mean. But in others (e.g., “average American”), it may align more closely with the median or mode.

There’s a reason that experts avoid the word. It lacks a single, clear meaning.

To be fair, Excel is not necessarily meant for experts. Rather, it is a nifty and easy-to-use tool. I’ve loved teaching it to students: it gives them a thrilling taste of computing power in an intuitive and easy-to-use package.

And for precisely this reason, its choice of language matters. We math teachers of the world are out here preaching the gospel of precise communication. “What do you mean by ‘average’?” we nag our students. “The harmonic mean? The median? Be clear!”

Then we boot up the computer and tell our baffled pupils, “Oh yeah, to get the mean, type AVERAGE.”

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You make liars and hypocrites of us all, Microsoft. I have at times computed a mean as SUM divided by COUNT, just to avoid sullying my hands with the hateful word.

You have the geometric mean as GEOMEAN.

You have the harmonic mean as HARMEAN.

And yet the most famous and widely-used mean of all, the arithmetic mean, goes costumed in the jester rags of AVERAGE.

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Enough of this chicanery, Microsoft. Change the formula. Feel free to leave AVERAGE in for backward compatibility (as you do with other replaced functions), but please indicate to the confused and benighted children of the world that AVERAGE is on its way out.

Using imprecise language is not user-friendly. It is teacher-hostile. I humbly demand that you give us MEAN.

Ben Orlin

7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Microsoft Excel

    1. See, the modal person wants 1 scoop of ice cream, while the mean is nearly 4 scoops (driven up by the rare people like me who want 900+ scoops)

  1. Far worse is that Excel thinks -a and -1*a are not equal for the purposes of BEMDAS? Say doing some Euler Method with y'(x) = exp(-x^2)…. x=0.1 in A3 say… y'(0.1) = exp(-A3^2) gives exp(0.01) rather than exp(-0.01).

  2. Even worse than that is the fact that excel always converts everything by default into a date. That the most evil thing to do to a maths teacher usin excel. I could forgive the average-thing, but the date-thing is just plain evil.

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