Frequently Asked Questions about Spotlight

Spotlight is the Mac’s search engine, just as Google is one of the Web’s. To search for—or through—files and folders on your computer, access Spotlight from any Finder window, or from the Spotlight menu at the far right of your menu bar.

In the Finder, start a search by selecting File -> Find, by pressing Command-F, or by clicking in the search field of any window. Open the Spotlight menu’s search field by clicking on the Spotlight icon at the far right of your menu bar or by pressing Command-space bar. Here are answers to frequently asked questions about using Spotlight.

Q: Is it possible to narrow my Spotlight searches somehow—say, when I just want to find an image?

A:When you start a Finder search with Command-F or by typing in a window’s search field, the window changes to a search window. There’s a search bar at the top that lets you define the scope of your search (usually to either This Mac or the current folder). Beneath that is a criteria bar with pop-up menus set to Kind Is Any—by default Spotlight searches through all types of files.

Click on Any (the attribute menu) and you get choices such as PDF, Presentation, Text, and Image. Narrow your search results by choosing the kind of item you’re looking for. You can add or delete criteria bars by clicking the Add (+) or Delete (-) button in the search bar or criteria bars.

Q: I want to search for files by label color, but I don’t see it in the attribute menu. Am I limited to only the options listed there?

A:There’s more to this menu than meets the eye. If you choose Other from the attribute menu, a sheet appears with a myriad of new options. You can type something in the sheet’s search field, like label, to home in on options more quickly. When you’ve found what you need, select it and click OK.

If the attribute is something you’ll use often, add it to the attribute menu permanently. To do this, check the box in the In Menu column at the far right before you click OK.

Attribute options
Choosing Other from the attribute menu reveals a sheet filled with options you can use to find files of different types. If you want to add the item to the attribute menu permanently, select the In Menu box (circled) before you click OK.

Q: Is there any faster way to narrow my searches? I hate having to click on the criteria bar and select from menus every time.

A:Absolutely. If you can set up something with a criteria bar menu, you can usually also type it in the search field by combining the attribute with a keyword. For example, instead of setting the criteria bar to Kind Is Image, type kind:image or kind:jpeg (if you know what type of image file it is) in the search field. You can use any combination of upper- and lowercase letters in the attribute or the keyword, but there must be no space before or after the colon.

With the search narrowed somewhat, add whatever word(s) you want to specify the file’s name or content. For example, kind:image birthday. This approach works in the Spotlight menu, too, where it’s a great technique to narrow the scope of your search. Here’s Apple’s list of keywords you can use with the Kind attribute.

Q: If I use date as an attribute in the search field, what date is it—the date the file was created, modified, or last opened?

A:Aha—trick question! The date attribute is a catch-all that includes all three types of dates. When you search, you can use a specific date (date:12/5/99) or the keywords yesterday or today. If you use numbers, you can include or drop leading zeroes for single-digit numbers. You can also use operators right after the colon to specify dates before or after the supplied date: date:>4/15/10 or date. And, the pièce de résistance: use a hyphen for a date range: date:12/10/11-1/10/12.

Q: Sometimes it seems like Spotlight only looks at the beginning of file names, and other times it finds text in the middle of a word. What’s going on?

A:When you type in your search terms, Spotlight looks for even a partial match at the beginning of a word. So, when you search for phon you’ll find phone, phony, and phonatory, but not symphony.

What’s tricky is that Spotlight’s definition of a “word” differs from yours. If there’s a capital letter in the middle of a file name, as in cellPhone, Spotlight sees the name as two words, cell and Phone, so it will include this filename in your results.

Punctuation and non-alphabetic characters (like numbers or bullets) serve as word delimiters, too. So, a switch between alphabetic and numeric characters also defines a new word: "Chapter4ANewHope" is five words as far as Spotlight is concerned—but the third is "AN" and the fourth is "ew."

This means that if you name multi-word files without spaces, as so many of us do, you can still easily search for any of the words in its name. Or, say you want to open TextEdit using the Spotlight menu’s capability of launching a found application. You can type t e to get TextEdit and then press Return to launch it.

Q: Can I search for a partial word when, for instance, I’m not sure of a file’s complete name or because I run words together in filenames without capitalizing them?

A:Yes. Set the criteria bar to Name Contains, and type your search string in the text field that appears. Using this method, a search for time faculty, for example, will net both Fulltime Faculty and Parttime Faculty.

Q: When I search with multiple words, I find files with all those words, but not in any particular order. What if I want to search for a phrase like “Never say die”?

A:You’re right—a search for those words would find a sentence like Say, did you know that vampires never die except by three methods? To insist on words that are in order with nothing intervening, use quotes marks around them: “never say die”.

But if you want to search for both Never say die and Never say diet, leave off the closing quote: “never say die finds both because you haven’t defined the end of the phrase.

Q: There used to be an option in the search bar to search for either file names or words in a file’s content. Lion doesn’t have that, so how can I narrow my search that way?

A:The “Contents” search was always a misnomer: it actually looked through a file’s contents, but also included the filename and metadata (keywords, author, and other things you can generally see in a file’s Info window). This thorough search is now Spotlight’s default, so you don’t have to specify it.

Instead, you specify a filename-only search. As you type something in the search field, a menu drops down suggesting a filename search; select it, and you’ve narrowed the scope of the search. Alternatively, you can type name: followed by the name you seek in a window's search field.

Search options
Typing in a search field triggers a Filename Contains suggestion (top left). Accepting it results in a “token” defining an attribute and keyword (bottom). This narrows the search to the names of files instead of their contents or metadata, but note that it looks at only at the beginning of words in the file name. To find partial words in a file name, use the criteria bar to set up a Name Contains search (right). Unlike the search-field approach at left, this finds the ebook "Mockingjay."

Q: Grammatically speaking, shouldn’t a criteria bar be a “criterion” bar?

A:Yes. Although “criterial” would also be correct, as well as magniloquent.

Sharon Zardetto, author of Take Control of Spotlight for Finding Things on Your Mac wants a Spotlight function elsewhere in her life, say in closets, kitchen cabinets, the attic….

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