Say Hello to Your Mac's Keyboard Modifier Keys

What menu item symbols mean and their corresponding keys

You've probably noticed these Mac modifier symbols appearing in various application menus. Some are easy to understand because the same symbol is emblazoned on a key on your Mac’s keyboard. However, many of the menu symbols aren't present on the keyboard, and if you're using a Windows keyboard, it's likely that none of these symbols show up at all.

The Mac modifier keys are important. They're used to access special functions, such as controlling Mac’s startup process, copying selected items, including text, opening windows, even printing the currently open document. And those are just some of the common functions.

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In addition to keyboard shortcuts for common system functions, there are also shortcuts used by individual applications, such as the Mac's Finder, Safari, and Mail, as well as most third-party apps, including games, productivity apps, and utilities. Keyboard shortcuts are an important part of becoming more productive; the first step in becoming acquainted with keyboard shortcuts is to understand the shortcut symbols, and which keys are associated with them.

Symbol Mac Keyboard Windows Keyboard
Command key Windows/Start key
Option key Alt key
Control key Ctrl key
Shift key Shift key
Caps Lock key Caps Lock key
Delete key Backspace key
Esc key Esc key
fn Function key Function key
Mac Menu Shortcut Symbols

With the menu symbols sorted out, it's time to put your new keyboard knowledge to work. Here are lists of some of the most common Mac keyboard shortcuts:

Mac OS X Startup Keyboard Shortcuts

You’re probably used to just pressing the power button to start up your Mac, but there are a number of special startup states your Mac can use. Many are designed to help you troubleshoot problems; some allow you to invoke special boot-up methods that let you select the startup drive, a network drive, or even boot from Apple’s remote servers. There's quite a list of startup options available.

Keyboard Shortcuts for Finder Windows

The Finder, which includes the desktop, is the heart of your Mac. The Finder is the way you interact with Mac's file system, access applications, and work with document files. Familiarity with the Finder's shortcuts can make you more productive as you work with OS X and its file system.

Control Safari Windows With Keyboard Shortcuts

Safari is the most often used Internet browser for Mac users. With its speed and support for tabs and multiple windows, Safari has a number of capabilities that would be difficult to take advantage of if all you ever used was the menu system. With these keyboard shortcuts, you can take command of the Safari web browser.

Control Apple Mail with Keyboard Shortcuts

Apple Mail is likely to be your primary email client, and why not; it’s a strong contender, with many advanced features. If you spend a good deal of time using Mail, you'll likely find its many keyboard shortcuts to be extremely helpful for both mundane tasks, such as collecting new emails from the various mail servers you use, or reading and ​filing your many messages, and the more interesting ones, such as running mail rules or opening the Activity window to see what's going on with Mail when it's sending or receiving messages.

Add Keyboard Shortcuts for Any Menu Item on Your Mac

Sometimes your favorite menu command doesn't have a keyboard shortcut assigned to it. You could ask the app's developer to assign one in the next version of the app, but why wait for the developer when you can do it yourself.

With a bit of careful planning, you can use the Keyboard preference pane to create your own keyboard shortcuts.

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