Don’t forget about the “A” in “VBA”!

Today’s author, Stephane Viot, a Program Manager in the Office Global Experience Platform team, reflects on how leveraging application features could help speed up the development of your VBA solutions, while improving their performance.

Often -but hopefully not always- VBA developers forget about the “A” in “VBA”. And by that I mean they might have the tendency of trying to do everything in VBA, like they would in VB, forgetting about what the host application has to offer. To illustrate that point -that is the main purpose of this post- let me share with you a practical example.

The problem

I often need to extract the list of unique values from a range -usually from a list or a table- and paste it into a mail as a comma-delimited string where all values are sorted in alphabetical order.

For example, given the following list, how would you pull out the list of unique states you are shipping products to, in alphabetical order, using VBA code -so that you can re-use it over and over?


The VBa-only approach

Before actually getting into the details of a better solution, let’s see how one could have tackled the problem, using VBA code only. Even if variants exist, the basic steps would be to:

1. Loop through each cell in the current selection and construct an array of unique values.

2. Sort the array.

3. Build the output string using the list separator provided by the user.

4. Copy the output string to the Clipboard.

When working on very large lists, extracting the unique values from a range using the preceding technique might show its limits, and be quite slow. Sorting the values, too.

Now, think how the application could help you do such things. In other words, what steps would you go through if you had to do it “manually”?

The manual steps

This is what I would personally do.

  1. Copy the data from the Ship State column (D2:D49; skipping the header cell), and paste it into a new worksheet or workbook:
  2. Click the Data tab in the Ribbon, then Remove Duplicates (under the Data Tools group):
  3. In the Remove Duplicates dialog, uncheck My data has headers (provided you haven’t copied the “Ship State” column header earlier), then click OK.
  4. The results of the preceding operation would look like the following, after having sorted the list in alphabetical order using the Sort button:
  5. Now that we have the list of unique values sorted in alphabetical order, how would you get the text “CA, CO, FL, ID, IL, NV, NY, OR, TN, UT, WA, WI” from that list? Again, do not think VBA code and how you could concatenate the content of each cell to build the output string. Think formulae instead. Here is one way of doing it:

    B1: =A1
    B2: =B1&”, “&A2

    Then copy the formula in B2 down to B12:

    So the results of the calculation would be:

  6. As you can see, B12 now contains the string we are looking for. All we have to do next is select that cell and copy/paste it into the e-mail message -and get rid of that extraneous workbook or worksheet that is no longer needed.

On very large lists, I can guarantee that you will be amazed to see how fast Excel Remove Duplicates can be. And I would bet, without taking any risks, that it would be much faster than any VBA code anyone could write.

As you have probably guessed it by now, a better solution to the Vba-only approach would be to mimic those manual steps.

A better solution: The CopyUniqueValues Add-In

Rather than providing the full VBA code listing here (available for download at the end of this post), let’s instead see how the add-in is organized.

The CopyUniqueValues add-in contains:

  • One worksheet, internally named shtTemp, for extracting the list of unique values;
  • One UserForm, frmCopyUniqueValues, for selecting the delimiter and sorting options for the list;
  • And one module, modCopyUniqueValues, for performing the “dirty work”.

Below are the delimiter and sorting options users can select:


Note: The choice of the delimiter would be determined by the intended use. For example, for building a list…

  • …to be pasted in a Word document, in place of a table -> select “Comma and space”;
  • …of e-mail addresses to send a message to -> select “Semi-colon”;
  • …that can be used as the source of a Data Validation -> select “Carriage return”;
  • …of column headers for a new table you are creating -> select “Tab”
  • Etc.

The GetUniqueStringsList function, in modCopyUniqueValues, is responsible for creating the sorted list of unique values. It relies heavily on Excel features exposed through its Object Model. It performs the following actions:

  1. Copy/paste append the cell values from the source range to column A in shtTemp, in order to build the complete list of values (still containing duplicates);
  2. Remove duplicates from that list by calling the RemoveDuplicates method.

    Note: The RemoveDuplicates method was first introduced in Excel 2007. In order to make the code work in earlier versions of Excel, you would need to use the AdvancedFilter method instead.

  3. Optionally, sort the list of unique values using the Sort method.
  4. Add the formulae discussed earlier for constructing the output string.
  5. Return the output string from the last cell in shtTemp to frmCopyUniqueValues, where it is copied to the Clipboard using the MSForms.DataObject SetText and PutInClipboard methods.


The intent of this article was to remind (as a piece of advice) VBA developers to always check how the host application could help them solve complex operations, before exercising their coding skills.

When writing Excel macros, I am indeed relying on the application even for the simplest tasks (such as the one below), saving me literally lines of VBA code. For example, I would often favor retrieving a SQL statement I want to use for querying a database from a cell rather than construct it programmatically:

  • Cell A1 would contain the SQL statement “template” e.g., “SELECT FirstName, LastName FROM Contacts WHERE EmailAddress='{0}’ ORDER BY LastName, FirstName”;
  • Cell A2, the value to use for the “{0}” parameter e.g., “johndoe” (supposedly provided by the user);
  • And cell A3 would have the formula “=SUBSTITUTE(A1,”{0}”,A2)”, returning “SELECT FirstName, LastName FROM Contacts WHERE EmailAddress=’johndoe’ ORDER BY LastName, FirstName”.

That way, I would simply get the value of the SQL statement from cell A3 and be ready with it.