What Is a Bar Graph?

Person looking at bar graph on iPad.

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A bar graph or a bar chart is used to represent data visually using bars of different heights or lengths. Data is graphed either horizontally or vertically, allowing viewers to compare different values and draw conclusions quickly and easily. A typical bar graph will have a label, axis, scales, and bars, which represent measurable values such as amounts or percentages. Bar graphs are used to display all kinds of data, from quarterly sales and job growth to seasonal rainfall and crop yields.

The bars on a bar graph may be the same color, though different colors are sometimes used to distinguish between groups or categories to make the data easier to read and interpret. Bar graphs have a labeled x-axis (horizontal axis) and y-axis (vertical axis). When experimental data is graphed, the independent variable is graphed on the x-axis, while the dependent variable is graphed on the y-axis.

Types of Bar Graphs

Bar graphs take different forms depending on the type and complexity of the data they represent. They can be as simple, in some cases, as two bars, such as a graph representing the vote totals of two competing political candidates. As the information becomes more complex, so will the graph, which may even take the form of a grouped or clustered bar graph or a stacked bar graph.

Single: Single bar graphs are used to convey the discrete value of the item for each category shown on the opposing axis. An example would be a representation of the number of males in grades 4-6 for each of the years 1995 to 2010. The actual number (discrete value) could be represented by a bar sized to scale, with the scale appearing on the X-axis. The Y-axis would display the corresponding years. The longest bar on the graph would represent the year from 1995 to 2010 in which the number of males in grades 4-6 reached its greatest value. The shortest bar would represent the year in which the number of males in grades 4-6 reached its lowest value.

Grouped: A grouped or clustered bar graph is used to represent discrete values for more than one item that share the same category. In the single bar graph example above, only one item (the number of males in grades 4-6) is represented. But one could very easily modify the graph by adding a second value that includes the number of females in grades 4-6. The bars representing each gender by year would be grouped together and color-coded to make it clear which bars represent the male and female values. This grouped bar graph would then allow readers to easily compare the number of students enrolled in grades 4-6 both by year and by gender.

Stacked: Some bar graphs have each bar divided into subparts that represent the discrete values for items that constitute a portion of the whole group. For instance, in the examples above, students in grades 4-6 are grouped together and represented by a single bar. This bar could be broken into subsections to represent the proportion of students in each grade. Again, color coding would be needed to make the graph readable.

Bar Graph vs. Histogram

A histogram is a type of chart that often resembles a bar graph. However, unlike a bar graph, which represents the relationship between two different variables, a histogram represents only a single, continuous variable. In a histogram, the range of values is divided into a series of intervals, known as "bins" or "buckets," which are labeled on the chart's x-axis. The y-axis, when the bins are evenly spaced, measures the frequency of the given values. Histograms can be used to produce models of probability and to estimate the likelihood of certain outcomes.

How to Make a Bar Graph

The easiest way to create a bar graph is to use the Charts tool in Microsoft Excel. This tool allows you to transform spreadsheet data into a simple chart, which you can then customize by adding a title and labels and by changing the chart style and column colors. Once you have completed the bar graph, you can make updates and adjustments by changing the values in the spreadsheet. You can also create simple bar graphs using free online tools such as Meta Chart and Canva.

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Russell, Deb. "What Is a Bar Graph?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/definition-of-bar-graph-2312368. Russell, Deb. (2023, April 5). What Is a Bar Graph? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-bar-graph-2312368 Russell, Deb. "What Is a Bar Graph?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-bar-graph-2312368 (accessed May 30, 2023).