Sometimes Excel’s sorting and filtering options become grayed-out and unusable for no apparent reason. This problem doesn’t arise very often, but it can be very confusing when it does.
Adding to the confusion, there are several reasons why this can happen! This article explains the reasons sorting and filtering can be disabled, and how to fix the problem.
The worksheet may be Protected
One of Excel’s features is the ability to ‘protect’ a worksheet, which can prevent it from being sorted, and even prevent it from being changed in any way.
If this is the cause of the problem, you should be able to resolve it by unprotecting the worksheet.
Worksheet protection is covered in depth in our Expert Skills course.
A worksheet group may be selected
Excel allows you to make changes to multiple worksheets at the same time by selecting multiple worksheets before making changes. This is called a ‘worksheet group’.
You cannot use sorting and filtering when multiple worksheets are selected, so if this is the cause of the problem you can fix it by simply selecting a single worksheet.
Worksheet groups are covered in much greater depth in our Essential Skills course.
The data may be partially contained within a Table
This is an unusual circumstance, but it could be very difficult to resolve without knowing about the possibility!
Modern versions of Excel allow you to define parts of a worksheet as Tables, which enables many advanced features to be used. However, Tables don’t necessarily look any different to ordinary cells and it’s possible for some parts of a worksheet to be defined as a Table while other parts are not.
If you try to sort a range of cells that are partially within a table and partially outside a table, you’ll find that the Sort and Filter options are grayed-out and unusable, even though the cells might look completely ordinary!
The only way to tell for certain if a cell is contained within a Table is to click on it and look at the Ribbon.
If the cell is contained within a Table, the Table Tools > Design group will appear on the Ribbon.
Removing the Table should re-enable the sorting options (although it’s likely that whoever created the Table did so for a reason). You can remove the Table by clicking the Table Tools > Design > Convert to Range button on the Ribbon.
You can learn much more about Tables in our Expert Skills course.
The data may originate from an external data source
Some Excel data may originate from an external data source, such as a SQL Server database. This isn’t a problem in most cases, as Excel is able to apply sorting to most external data sources, but there are some that Excel may be unable to sort.
If the data is held in a data source that Excel cannot sort, you may need to copy it and paste it as Values before you can sort it.
Pasting values is explained in depth in our Essential Skills course.
We also explain external data sources in great depth in our Expert skills course.