You’ve probably heard the stats: 80% of Microsoft Word users make use of only 20% of its features. My guess is that only about 0.1% of Word users use the handy calculator built right into the program.

I’m not talking about the SUM() and AVERAGE() fields or any of the other of Word’s useful but not particularly elegant mathematical tools. I’m talking about a simple, straightforward calculator which lets you perform any basic arithmetical operation anywhere within Word.

You haven’t heard about it? Don’t worry, even Microsoft has no information about this feature, unless you dig way back into its archives where you’ll find that the calculator – which formerly held a prominent position on the Tools Menu – was driven underground in Word 6.0 to make way for the far more cumbersome, albeit more powerful, formula field.

It’s true Windows comes with a more advanced calculator built in, but if you spend your days working in Word, nothing beats having a calculator right there in front of your nose at all times.

Unearthing the calculator

Because Microsoft has buried the calculator so thoroughly, you’ll need to resurrect it before putting it to use. That means sticking it on a toolbar. In Word 2007, you’ll have to put it on the Quick Access toolbar:

  1. Right-click the Quick Access toolbar and select Customize Quick Access Toolbar from the pop-up menu.
  2. Make sure For All Documents is selected in the Customize Quick Access Toolbar drop-down box.
  3. In the Choose Commands From drop-down box, select Commands Not In The Ribbon. (Side note: Perusing this list is highly educational for old-time Word users pining for lost commands.)
  4. Locate Calculate in the list and double-click it to add it to the list of Quick Access commands, then click OK.

In Word XP/2003, do this:

  1. Right-click any of your toolbars and choose Customize from the pop-up menu.
  2. Click the Commands tab in the Customize dialog.
  3. In the Categories list click Tools and in the Commands list scroll to Tools Calculate.
  4. Click and drag the Tools Calculate command onto any of your toolbars.
  5. To display a more compact icon, right-click the Tools Calculate button on the toolbar, select Change Button Image and pick the calculator icon. Right-click the Tools Calculate button once more and select Default Style. Then click Close.

What the calculator does

With the Calculator now ensconced on a toolbar, you’re ready to give it a whirl.

The calculator handles addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages, exponentiation and roots. It takes six operators:

  • Addition: +
  • Subtraction: – or place the number to be subtracted in parentheses, ( )
  • Multiplication: *
  • Division: /
  • Percentages: %
  • Exponentiation and roots: ^

If you omit the operator, the calculator assumes you want to add the numbers. So you can write:

235 79 9412 17.95 432.82

then select the numbers and click the Calculator button. The result (10176.77) is displayed, briefly, in Word’s status bar. The result is also stored on the clipboard, so you can press Ctrl+V to paste it into your Word document or copy it into another program.

Calculate anywhere

Unlike formula fields, the calculator works anywhere, including in paragraphs containing intervening text. Thus if you use the calculator on the following sentence:

At the dinner there were 13 doctors, 25 cosmologists, 53 seismologists and 219 assorted hangers on.

the total number at the dinner will be calculated. Note, though, that if your text includes characters such as =, – or * you’ll confuse the calculator and end up with an error.

You can also use the Calculator in tables to tot up numbers in columns, in rows or in the whole table. As in ordinary text, use parentheses around a number or a minus sign before it to denote a negative number in the table.

Take care: although it’s possible to select numbers in non-adjacent cells in a table by holding down the Ctrl key while you select each cell, the calculator will not give you a correct total if you try to add these numbers. Your selection must contain contiguous cells, rows or columns.

Try it out

Try out a few simple examples to get an idea of what you can do with the calculator:

  • Simple addition and subtraction: 12+9-17.5
  • Simple multiplication: 123*52
  • Simple division: 9.3/7
  • Calculating a percentage: 3422*17%
  • Exponentiation: 7^4
  • Calculating a cube root: 1728^(1/3)

Note that you don’t need to use an equals sign; in fact, Word will give you an “!Unexpected end of formula” error if you do.

Ordering

The calculator uses operator precedence and parentheses to determine the order of calculations in more complex expressions. For example:

12+9*2^3

gives you the answer 84, while:

12+(9*2)^3

produces the result 5844.

If you don’t include parentheses in an expression, Word performs operations in this order:

  1. percentage
  2. power and root
  3. multiplication and division
  4. addition and subtraction.

Mind your parentheses!

When using parentheses, you need to keep your wits about you. Take these four expressions:

  • 17(8)
  • 17(2^3)
  • 17*(8)
  • 17*(2^3)

The results are, respectively, 9, 25, (136) and 136. In the first example, the calculator subtracts 8 from 17; in the second, it adds 8 (2 raised to the 3rd power) to 17; in the third, it multiplies 17 and -8; and in the last it multiplies 17 by 8. The second expression, in particular, is worth noting: the calculator performs the expression within the parentheses and then discards the parentheses, resulting in a final expression of:

17 8

The two figures are then added to produce 25.