Five fundamental text-selection tips

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Some few of us are perfect writers and typists, even applying formatting as we go along; the rest of us have to go back and select text to change it. Everybody knows the very basics: Double-click to select a word; drag across any swath of text; and Shift-click to select starting at the insertion point or to alter an existing selection.

But wait, there’s more! These just-beyond-basic tips work in Apple’s Pages and TextEdit, as well as Microsoft Word. Some of them even work in Apple’s Mail and Safari. (And they all work in both Snow Leopard and Lion.)

1. Set your selection color

If you dislike the default light-blue color that highlights text when you select it, change it. To pick your own color, select System Preferences from the Apple menu. In Snow Leopard, click on the Appearance pane; in Lion, click on the General pane. Then, use the Highlight Color menu to select a color or choose Other to open the Color Picker and create your own.

2. Shift to select as you go

If you can move your cursor to any spot in your text using the keyboard, you can select the text you pass over by holding down Shift as you move the cursor. So, using the Left or Right Arrow keys to move a character at a time with Shift pressed means you can select a character at a time; use the Up or Down Arrow keys with Shift to start selecting upwards or downwards from the insertion point.

3. Get the beginning, or the end

Hate your introductory text but you hit your stride in the middle of your essay? Press Shift-Home to select everything from the current cursor position to the beginning of the document and then delete it. Shift-End grabs everything from the insertion point to the end if you want to delete your weak conclusion. No Home or End key on your keyboard? In Pages or TextEdit, press Shift-Fn-Left Arrow or Shift-Fn-Right Arrow to select to the beginning or to the end of the document. Microsoft Word 2011 doesn’t support the standard Fn-Left Arrow and Fn-Right Arrow as substitutes for Home and End, and has mapped those combos to move the cursor to the beginning and the end of the current line.

4. Pick a paragraph, or part of it

The quick tip: Triple-click in a paragraph to select it.

To select from the current insertion point to the beginning or the end of the paragraph, use the general “Shift to select” trick described above. You can move the cursor from anywhere in a paragraph to its beginning or end by pressing Option-Up or Option-Down Arrow. Add Shift to that, and you select the previous or later part of the paragraph starting at the insertion point.

Now, back to the select-a-paragraph idea: If you want to select a paragraph strictly using the keyboard rather than with a triple-click, press Option-Up Arrow to jump to its beginning, then Shift-Option-Down Arrow to jump—and select—to the end.

5. The Shift-click fine points

Since the days when “click” became a computer term, we’ve been able to click anywhere in text and Shift-click somewhere else to select everything between the two clicked spots.

But a Shift-click is actually a way to change your current selection, not just add to it. So, Shift-click outside an existing selection and it’s expanded; but Shift-click within the selection, and it’s shortened to that point.

In Pages and TextEdit, Shift-clicking is straightforward and always adds to with whatever you’ve selected so far. Microsoft Word, however, has a quirky take on this procedure. It remembers the initial position of the insertion point, or the original selection (such as a double-click for a word); a Shift-click operation is calculated from the original point or selection rather than dealing with whatever Shift-clicking you’ve done since. So, start with the insertion point in the middle of a paragraph and Shift-click towards its end; all three word processors select the latter part of the paragraph. Then Shift-click towards the beginning of the paragraph: Pages and TextEdit add the beginning of the paragraph to the selection, while Word selects from the original point to the beginning of the paragraph.

Word has a further Shift-click quirk: it considers the direction of an initial drag-selection. A Shift-click farther in the same direction adds to the selection; a Shift-click in the opposite direction selects only the text before the original selection.

Word Shift-click
In Microsoft Word, which direction you drag the cursor before you Shift-click changes the selection.
Mac author Sharon Zardetto's Take Control book about using Spotlight in Lion will be out any minute now; in the meantime she’s directing the overflow to a Macworld article on the topic.

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