For the last few weeks I’ve casually thrown around phrases like “hover your cursor over,” “press the Command key,” and “swipe to the side on your trackpad.” And while I’m fairly confident that such suggestions are well within your powers to understand, it’s possible (likely, even) that you, your keyboard, mouse, and trackpad are not on entirely intimate terms. Let’s do something about that now.
Very broadly, we term any device you manipulate that causes letters to be typed, the cursor to move, external sounds recorded, or lines drawn an input device. The most common are the Mac’s keyboard, mouse, and trackpad. But a digital drawing tablet with stylus, trackball, or even a microphone could be considered input devices. We’ll concentrate on the most common devices, starting with the keyboard.
A Mac keyboard—whether it’s built into a laptop or ships with a desktop Mac such as an iMac—uses the traditional QWERTY typewriter layout in the United States. Above the letters are the numbers 1 to 0. Above that row are Function keys or F keys. These are keys that, when pressed, cause the Mac to perform one trick or another—make your Mac’s screen brighter or increase the Mac’s sound volume, for example.
At the bottom of the keyboard you’ll find not only the space bar but a few keys to either side. All of these except the Arrow keys (the ones with the triangle symbols) are termed Modifier keys. They’re called that because, when pressed, they modify the behavior of other keys you press at the same time. When you press keys to make the Mac do something other than type a letter, number, or hunk of punctuation, you’re said to be invoking a keyboard shortcut or keyboard command. You can use one modifier key with a “regular” key to invoke one of these shortcuts or commands or use multiple modifier keys along with another key.
Let’s run through those keys now.
fn (Function): It’s possible that the first key you see on that bottom row isn’t marked fn. It is on today’s Apple laptops and wireless keyboards, but some older keyboards still in use (and many third-party keyboards) don’t have a Function key—at least not in this position.
I just mentioned that the very top row of function keys perform certain operations by default. If you press the fn key and then press one of those keys, the Mac reacts differently. For example, if you press the F12 key all by itself, then the Mac’s audio volume increases. Press fn along with F12 on a Mac running Mountain Lion and your Mac's display shifts to something called the Dashboard environment (something we’ll look at in a future column).
Control (⌃): The Control key is most often used to invoke contextual menus. If you’re a Windows user you know these as the menus that appear when you right-click something. If you’re just starting out on any computer, these are commands that apply to the context of your current activity.
Try this: Click the Mac’s desktop. Nothing happens, right? Hold down the Control key and do the same thing. Now you get a menu that includes New Folder, Get Info, Change Desktop Background, Clean Up, Clean Up By, Sort By, and Show View Options commands. So, you see commands that best apply to doing things with the Finder’s desktop. To dismiss this menu, just click anywhere outside of it without hold down the Control key.
Option (⌥): To the right of the Control key is the Option key. Current Mac keyboards also print alt on this key. This is largely for the benefit of Windows users who are accustomed to finding such a key on their PC’s keyboards. As its name implies, pressing the Option key can cause optional or alternative actions to take place.
Try this: Move to the Finder, click the File menu, and press the Option key. You’ll see that some of the commands change when you do. These are the less-used, “optional” commands, thus triggered by this aptly named key.
Command (⌘): The Command key, which appears both to the right and left of the space bar, is the Big Kahuna of modifier keys. Known by many names—pretzel, four-leaf clover, propeller, Apple key, puppy-foot—the Command key is the modifier key you’ll most often invoke. For example, when saving a document you needn’t traipse all the way to the File menu to choose Save. Instead, just press Command-S. Or if you want to quit an application, press Command-Q. This table provides a list of the most commonly used command keys.
Common Keyboard Shortcuts
Shift (⇧): Although the Shift key is most often used to capitalize letters or choose the punctuation characters above the number keys and other punctuation keys, it can also be used in combination with another modifier key. For example, Command-Shift-S invokes the Save As command in some applications.
One great thing about the Mac OS is that these common key commands are used by nearly every application you’ll work with. So, regardless of which application you’re using, Command-S will always save the document you’re working in just as Command-Q will quit the application. But some applications use far more keyboard commands. And for this reason you’ll want to become familiar with each command’s symbol so that you can recognize it in your applications’ menus.
And don’t be surprised if you see combinations of modifier keys in these menus. There are only so many keys you can combine with Command. If you’re using an application with a metric ton of commands, you’re likely to see all kinds of key combinations when you visit these applications’ menus.