Keyboard Control

The novelty of operating a computer using a mouse, trackpad or trackball soon wears off. Having become familiar with the machine you’ll soon want more control from the keyboard.


The keyboards on modern Mac OS computers are similar to those on other machines, consisting of QWERTY keys, numerical keys, special character keys and modifier keys.

Most keyboards have between 101 and 105 keys, including twelve or more function keys, as well as Apple’s special Command key, the latter of which is usually marked with the Apple icon as well as a (clover-leaf) symbol.

The following table shows which keys are equivalent on Mac OS and Windows systems:-

Mac OSWindows
Ctrl (Control)
OptionAlt (Alternative)

This means that pressing similar key combinations can have much the same effect. For example, pressing -C in the Mac OS gives the same result as pressing Ctrl-C in Windows.


The behaviour of the keyboard is set by the Keyboard & Mouse pane in System Preferences. The Keyboard tab includes two settings, Key Repeat Rate and Delay Until Repeat, both of which should be adjusted to match your own style of typing.

The Keyboard Shortcuts tab in the Keyboard & Mouse pane lets you modify existing keyboard shortcuts or create new ones of your own. To add a shortcut requires you must choose the application in which the shortcut will be used and then enter the menu item’s name exactly as it appears on the screen. As an example, you could choose to use the key combination of Ctrl-Shift-Option-T to select Secure Empty Trash in the Finder.

The keyboard layout is set in the Input Menu tab of the International preferences pane. Each item in the list can be used to match your Mac’s software to the physical layout of the keys. If you pick the wrong one you’ll get incorrect characters.

Special Keys

Most modern keyboard incorporate the following special keys:-

(Power) ​Machine ​control
Function ​(F1, ​F2 ​…)Special ​and ​user-defined ​purposes
EscCancel ​dialogues ​or ​reverts ​to ​default
DelDeletes ​text ​right ​of ​cursor ​(opposite ​to ​Delete)
Home, ​Page ​Up, ​Page ​Down, ​EndWindow ​navigation
HelpFast ​access ​to ​an ​application’s ​help ​facility
Numeric ​(1, ​2 ​…)Calculations ​and ​rapid ​numeric ​entries
FnModifies ​actions ​of ​other ​keys ​on ​portables
Not fitted on some keyboards or provided as a separate button on the computer

Power Key

This key or button, usually marked with a symbol, lets you turn your computer on or off. However, such a key on a USB-connected keyboard can only be used to turn the machine off.

Function Keys

Full-sized keyboards usually have fifteen function or F keys, numbered from F1 to F15, although some PowerBook and iBook models only have the first 12 keys. These shouldn’t be confused with the Fn key, also found these machines and also known as the ‘function’ key.

Modern PowerBook and iBook models often assign the following F keys as shown below:-

F1Brightness Down
F2Brightness Up
F3Volume Down
F4Volume Up
F5Number Lock
F6Sound Mute
F12Eject CD/DVD •
This function is accommodated by a separate button on some machines

For these keys to behave ‘normally’, you must press Option as well as an F key, although on some machines the behaviour can be modified by pressing Fn at the same time. Since the F keys were originally designed as function keys, this way of working appears to be a retrograde step.

Numeric Keys

This part of a keyboard, when provided, is designed for entering numbers during calculations. Although most of these keys have counterparts on the main keyboard they’re not always treated the same by an application. PowerBook models don’t come with a numeric area, although part of the main keyboard can be used for this purpose in conjunction with the Fn key (see below).


The Shift key operates in exactly the same way as it does on an old-fashioned typewriter. However, the operation of ‘shifting’ letters and numbers can be confusing to an inexperienced typist.


With suitable software, the Fn (function) key, as found on portable machines, can change the action of other keys, making it possible to simulate all 105 keys. Typically, it modifies the F keys as follows:-

KeyOperation with Fn
F5Num Lock
F8Delete (Forward) •
F9Print Screen
F10Scroll Lock
This operation requires special software on machines without a Fn key

In addition, it modifies the arrow keys as follows, without the need for any extra software:-

KeyOperation with Fn
Page Up
Page Down

By pressing Fn and F5 together you can switch the keyboard into Number Lock or Num Lock mode. This modifies the keyboard to work as follows :-

7 8 9 0 -7 8 9 / =
U I O P4 5 6 *
J K L ;1 2 3 -
M , . /0 . +

In this mode all other keys are locked out of action, but can be temporarily restored by pressing any such key at the same time as the Fn key.

Ctrl (Control)

The Ctrl key is often used for Ctrl-clicking, which brings up a contextual menu, in the same way as the right hand button on a two-button mouse. It also modifies the operation of the Eject button on an Apple keyboard (see below).


The Option key is normally used to generate characters that aren’t provided by other keys, either on their own or in combination with the Shift key. Any character produced by using Option in combination with other keys is outside the range of normal ASCII characters.


This key is identified by an Apple icon and/or (clover-leaf) symbol. When pressed in combination with another key it can send a command to your current application.

Other Keys

Pressing Return or Enter often has the same effect, since both keys usually actuate the default button in a dialogue box. However, in dialogues that also let you to enter text the Return key should only insert a CR (carriage return or new line) character whilst Enter should activate the button. Inevitably, the role of these keys varies between applications: for example, pressing the Enter button is the usual means of confirming the data that you’ve typed into a calculator application.

Older PowerBook models have extra buttons that can disable the loudspeaker, increase or decrease the sound volume and adjust the screen brightness. Recent designs use the F keys for this purpose, requiring you to press Fn to get the normal function key to operate (see above).

The Eject button on an Apple keyboard also performs special functions when used with the Ctrl key. For example, holding down Ctrl-Eject and pressing Enter shuts down the computer, whilst holding Ctrl-Eject and pressing S puts it to sleep.

Keyboard Symbols

Keyboards and menus with keyboard equivalents usually use symbols for modifier keys, including , Shift, Ctrl, Option and other special keys.

The standard symbols are shown here:-

Standard Shortcuts

Several shortcuts are provided as standard, as shown in the Keyboard Shortcuts tab of the Keyboard & Mouse preferences pane. The following extract images from the computer screen:-

Key CombinationFunction
-Shift-3Saves ​desktop ​image ​in ​a ​PDF ​file
-Shift-Ctrl-3Copies ​desktop ​image ​to ​clipboard
-Shift-4Saves ​selected ​part ​of ​desktop ​in ​a ​PDF ​file
-Shift-Ctrl-4Copies ​selected ​part ​of ​desktop ​to ​clipboard

In the second pair of shortcuts the area is selected by clicking and dragging: it can be constrained to a square by pressing Shift whilst dragging. You can also press -Caps Lock-Shift-4, which creates a PDF file of a selected window. The camera icon that appears should be dragged into the required window and clicked. If you press Ctrl at the beginning of the process, or continue to hold this key down whilst clicking in the window, the image is copied to the clipboard.

If you click on Turn on full keyboard access in the Keyboard Shortcuts tab you can also use the following:-

Turn full keyboard control on or off Ctrl-F1

Select and control menu bar Ctrl-F2

Select and control Dock Ctrl-F3

Select and control Toolbar Ctrl-F5

Select or rotate through window palettes Ctrl-F6

Focus on next window of application Ctrl-F7

Finder Shortcuts

Common Finder shortcuts are listed below. Variations on these commands, actuated by pressing modifier keys, such as Option or Shift at the same time, are also shown. Such modifiers also work when you choose the appropriate item in the menu bar. Pressing Option either provides more options (hardly surprising) or makes a currently active item disappear or close when you select the new item.

Disk Control

The following shortcuts apply to any kind of disk:-

Mount disk without showing contents Option

Eject selected disk -E

Files and Folders

To use the following commands you must first select the items to be processed:-

Duplicate -D

Get Info -I

Make Alias -L

Open -O

Find Original -R

Add to Finder’s sidebar -T

Move to Trash -Delete

Edit name of item selected in Icon or Column View Return

Confirm modified name Return

Clear name whilst editing Delete

Move items to new location Drag the items

Move items in or out of the System folder Shift-Option-drag the items


Working through a window full of icons can be tedious. The following keyboard commands can give your mouse a rest:-

…in Any View

Select item by position , , or

Select All items -A

New folder -Shift-N

Find -F

Open folder in new window -double click

Some users, particularly those who normally work in a single window, may prefer to use the -N combination to create a new folder instead of a new window (see below). To make this slightly technical change, you must first go to the Keyboard Shortcuts panel of the Keyboard & Mouse preferences pane and create a shortcut called New Folder with the Shortcut set to -Shift-N. Now open ~/Library/Preferences/​ in a suitable text editor and find the new shortcut: duplicate it and then name it New Finder Window. Finally, delete the $ from the New Folder key, save the file and relaunch the Finder.

…in List View

Expand selected folder -⇢

Collapse selected folder -⇠

Select next item (first item if nothing selected) Tab

Select previous item (last item if nothing selected) Shift-Tab

Select item whose name begins with specific letters Type the letters

Select first item by name SpaceSelect last item by name Option-K

The Finder’s Find dialogue, initiated with -F, has a Search in pop-up menu, where you can select Specific places. In this window you can press Tab to highlight locations, Space to turn them on or off and Ctrl-Tab to leave Specific Places.


The following shortcuts are available when working in a Finder window:-

View as Icons -1

View as List -2

View as Columns -3

Go to Documents folder -4

Go to Users folder -5

Hide Toolbar -B

Go to Applications folder -A

Go to Computer folder -C

Go to Favorites folder -F

Go to Folder -G

Go to iDisk -Option-I

Show View Options -J

Connect to Server -K

New window -N

Close window -W

Go Back -[

Go Forward -]

Add item to toolbar Drag item onto the toolbar or use contextual menu

Move item on toolbar -drag item

Remove item from toolbar -drag item off the toolbar

Move the window Drag the window

Move within a window -click, hold and move mouse

Dock Shortcuts

Hide or show Dock -Option-D

Rotate through applications -Tab and -Shift-Tab

Force application in Dock to open file -Option-drag file onto application’s icon in the Dock.

Force document in Dock to be opened by an application -drag document’s icon from the Dock onto the application.

Show application’s folder -click icon

Application options Ctrl-click icon

Hide other applications Option-click required icon

Force Quit a Cocoa application Option-Ctrl-click icon

Dialogue Shortcuts

The operation of dialogues and panels varies between applications. In some instances the key, used in combination with a letter, activates the item that begins with a matching character.

The following shortcuts can help you move around the elements in a dialogue:-

Move forwards through dialogue panes, tabs or text boxes Tab

Move backwards through dialogue panes, tabs or text boxes Shift-Tab

Clear highlighted text Delete

Confirm entered text or select default button Return or Enter

Cancel dialogue or process -. or Escape

Open and Save Panels

Most applications let you open and save files. Having selected Save, a panel appears, showing all the items in the current folder. The following commands work in standard Open or Save panels:-

Go to entered path -Shift-G and then enter the path

Select item starting with specific letters Type the letters

Select first item in list Space

Select last item in list Option-K

Move through list or columns , , or

Move to Desktop -D

Move down into folder or open a file -O

Overwrite existing file in Save dialogue Select the file

View contents of any folder Drag folder icon from desktop into window

Add item in dialogue to Favorites Drag item onto Favorites button

Shortcuts in Applications

The shortcuts shown below work in many applications, as well as in the Finder:-


The following are used by most applications for selecting text styles:-

Bold -B

Italic -I

Plain -T

Underline -U

The following are generally available for editing text:-

Undo an operation -Z

Cut selection and place in clipboard -X

Copy selection and place in clipboard -C

Paste clipboard’s contents, leaving it in clipboard -V

Clear selection Delete

Move selection Click and drag

whilst these can be used for navigating around a document:-

Move to start of highlighted text or

Move to end of highlighted text or

Move to start of entire text -⇡, Home or Fn-⇠

Move to end of entire text -⇣, End or Fn-⇢

Move up one page Page Up or Fn-⇡

Move down one page Page Dn or Fn-⇣

Some applications have special features, as in AppleWorks, where you can press Ctrl-⇡ or Ctrl-⇣ to move the current paragraph up or down a paragraph, or Ctrl-⇢ or Ctrl-⇠ to increase or reduce a line’s indent by half an inch.

Cocoa Editing

Cocoa-based applications also accommodate the following Emac-style of editing:-

List possible word endings Option-Esc

Move up a line Ctrl-P

Move down a line Ctrl-N

Move to beginning of line Ctrl-A

Move to end of line Ctrl-E

Kill text up to end of line, putting it on a special clipboard Ctrl-K

Yank killed text back Ctrl-Y

Twiddle characters on each side of insertion point Ctrl-T

as well as the following:-

Remove previous word Option-Delete

Type a Tab character Option-Tab

Type a Return character Option-Return

Insert next character as special character, such as Ctrl-E Ctrl-Q

Other Shortcuts

The following shortcuts work most of the time, irrespective of the application:-

Hide front application -H

Hide other applications -Option-H

Minimise window -M

Print -P

Page Setup -Shift-P

Save -S

Save as -Shift-S

Close -W

Undo -Z

Open Preferences pane for current application -,

Cancel current operation -. or Esc

Force application to quit -Option-Esc

Force application to quit without confirmation dialogues -Shift-Option-Esc

Activate application window and hide other applications Option-click on a window

Activate Finder and hide applications -Option-click on desktop

Drag and drop Drag the item

Select a contextual menu item Ctrl-click (or right-click) the menu and press the first couple of letters for the item

Set the alert volume Option-click speaker icon in the menubar and adjust

Universal Access

Universal Access is for those who have difficulties with a keyboard, although it also includes features that anyone can use. It appears as a panel in the System Preferences window.

Mouse Keys lets you use the keys on the numeric part of your keyboard to move the mouse in one-pixel increments, with 8, 6, 4 and 2 operating in the same way as on a PC. Slow Keys is for slow typists whilst Sticky Keys can produce (for example) -W if you press followed by W.

Keyboard Codes in Detail

The keyboard in most computers actually generate two codes. The scan code indicates the physical key that has been pressed whilst a second code conveys its meaning with normal coding. Hence the = key on the main part of keyboard generates a different scan code to the = key on the numeric section, although both produce the number 61 (hex 3D), as used to represent the equals sign. This mechanism allows different applications to use these keys in different ways.

The code generated by a key changes when used with a modifier key, such as Shift, Ctrl, Option or Command. The effect of a toggle key, such as Caps Lock, Num Lock, Scroll Lock and Ins is similar, although the key must to be pressed again to cancel its effect. And although such key combinations produce a specific scan code they don’t always generate a character code.

Not all keyboards can produce every code. For example, a standard Mac keyboard can’t generate the numbers 252 to 255, whilst those above 218 are ignored by some computers. Codes that don’t represent a character are often shown in text as a (missing character box).

The Mac OS accommodates various physical keyboard layouts, using a keyboard map to assign a character to each key. You can check the characters produced your keyboard using KeyCaps, a small application supplied with the system.


MacWorld magazine (UK), IDG Communications, 2003-2004

©Ray White 2004.