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Sometimes, while editing the contents of a cell, using the arrow keys will not move the cursor but instead inserts the address to an adjacent cell.

Here is an example of this problem with a screenshot: I go into an empty cell and enter =SUMIF( and then decide I want to use a normal SUM instead of a SUMIF so I hit the left arrow key once to move the cursor back, but this enters the address of the cell to the left.
screenshot of arrow key setting a cell address

It doesn't always happen, so I wonder if there are conditions which cause it to occur which can be avoided. Is there a meta key which ensure the arrows can be used for navigation? Or can this functionality be disabled entirely?

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Short answer

Google Sheets doesn't have meta-keys that disable cell navigation and referencing during the edition of a formula and this behaviour can't be disabled.

Workarounds

  1. Add ) before pressing the left arrow key. i.e. if you write =SUMIF(, press ) so you have =SUMIF(). Now press the left arrow key.
  2. Press Backspace instead of the left arrow key.

References
Keyboard shortcuts for Google Sheets - Docs editors Help

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Since having asked this question a few years ago (and the usability issue yet to be resolved), I've concluded the best way to disable this annoying behavior is to exclude the = prefix until you've finished typing your formula. Without the =, a cell is considered "text only", and Google Sheets will not apply any "help" while editing (no annoying auto-cell-reference behavior, but also no useful function usage tips, nor syntax or parenthesis highlighting). It works really well (for me) to enter a formula in plain text, without interruption, then hit + or ctrl+a (on macOS) to move to the beginning and then type the =.

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