What Is a Bar Graph?

Bar Graph Definition

A bar graph is a good way to chart data to easily see maximum and minimum values or to compare the behavior of multiple groups.
A bar graph is a good way to chart data to easily see maximum and minimum values or to compare the behavior of multiple groups. Jetta Productions, Getty Images

Bar Graph Definition

A bar graph displays data visually and is sometimes called a bar chart or a bar graph. Data is displayed either horizontally or vertically and allows viewers to compare items displayed. Data displayed will relate to things like amounts, characteristics, times and frequency etc. A bar graph displays information in a way that helps us to make generalizations and conclusions quickly and easily.

A typical bar graph will have a label, axis, scales and bars. Bar graphs are used to display all kinds of information such as, numbers of females versus males in a school, sales of items during particular times of a year. Bar graphs are ideal for comparing two or more values.

The bars on a bar graph may be the same colors, but different colors may be used to distinguish between groups to make the data easier to read and understand. Bar graphs have a labelled x-axis (horizontal axis) and y-axis (vertical axis). If experimental data is graphed, the independent variable is graphed on the x-axis, while the dependent variable is on the y-axis.

When interpreting a bar chart, look at the tallest bar and look at the shortest bar. Look at the titles, look for inconsistencies and ask why they are there.

Types of Bar Graphs

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 - 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 show a tick and label for the corresponding year for each bar.

Grouped A grouped or clustered bar graph is used to represent discrete values for more than one item that share the same category. An example would be, using the single bar example above and introduce the number of female students in grades 4-6 for the same categories, years 1995- 2010. The two bars would be grouped together, side by side, and each could be color coded to make it clear which bar represents male vs. female discrete value.

Stacked: Some bar graphs have the bar divided into subparts that represent the discrete value for items that represent a portion of a whole group. An example would be to represent the actual grade data for males in each grade 4-6 and then scale each grade discrete value as a part of the whole for each bar. Again color coding would be needed to make the graph readable.

Once you've had some experience with bar graphs, you'll want to check into the many other graphs that mathematicians and statisticians use. Bar graphs are used in school as early as kindergarten and they are seen in the curriculum through to high school. Graphs and charts are the standard in visually representing data. If a picture is worth a thousand words then you'll appreciate the value or interpreting information presented in bar charts and graphs.

More often than not, I tend to use a spreadsheet to represent data in bar charts. Here's a tutorial to learn how to use a spreadsheet to create a bar chart or graph.

Also Known As: Bar Charts, Bar Graphs

Edited by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.