MacMost Now 594: Understanding Modifier Keys

Learn about the four Mac keyboard modifier keys: command, option, control and shift. Find out what functions each perform and the printed representations of each. See how they differ from Windows modification keys. Modifier keys allow you to issue commands, type special characters and bring up contextual menus.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: MacMost Now 594: Understanding Modifier Keys.

Hi, this is Gary with MacMost Now. On today's episode let's take a look at the modifier keys. So there are four modifier keys on the Mac keyboard. There's command, option, control and shift. And each have it's own special uses. Let's take a look at each one. So the command key is usually to either side of the space bar and it has a special symbol on the key which is also commonly used in documentation. You also see the word command on it. This key used to be called the apple key because earlier Mac keyboards used to have an apple symbol on it as well. Now usually use command alot. You use it to modify keys to perform menu functions. Like for instance, it's very common to use command Q for quit, command S for save, command C is copy and command V is paste and there are other commands that you'll find that are used throughout all different applications and some applications have their own special ones. If you look in the menu bar, at different menu items you'll often see different shortcuts for different commands and you'll see this command symbol there. Now if you're a recent switcher from Windows to Mac you may want to note that Windows uses the control key in the same way that Mac uses the command key. This can be confusing because there's also a control key on the Mac keyboard. But, for the most part if you use the control key for things like control Q for quit, on the Mac you would use the command key, command Q for quit. So, next we have the option key. And the option key has the word option written on it on most modern Mac keyboards. And,it also has the word Alt. It's because on Windows, usually the same key with similar functionality is the Alt key. So if you hear somebody refer to the Alt key on a a Mac they mean option key. They're one in the same. The option key also sometimes uses a symbol like this in some documentation and you can use for various things. Sometimes it further modifies the command key. So for instance, you might have something that's command and then a character like Q and there might also be a command option Q. Now you can also use the option key to modify characters. So for instance if I type option E, you can see I get this little accent mark there and then I can complete it by typing a vowel like let's say I'll type I and you see I have I with that accent mark over it. You can do the same thing in line by simply clicking or pressing I, holding down and you'll get a selection here that you can choose from. As a matter of fact you can go into system preferences and under system preferences select language and text. And there under input sources turn on the character and keyboard viewer. That gives you this special menu right here that allows you to bring up and you can just barely see it here, show the character view or the keyboard viewer. Let's bring up the keyboard viewer and we'll see with this keyboard viewer here how if I hold the option key down now I'm going to press it right now. You can see it changes what keys are available there. So it tells me for instance that the Q key will now give me that symbol and get a signal with option W and it will do the same for the other keys as well. So for instance I hold down the shift key and you can see the characters there that are represented by shift and later on we'll be talking about the control key and you can see I get various things along we got both the option and control here and I can hold down option, control and shift and you can see what character I get that way. So you can see how these modifier keys modify text that you type very easily with the keyboard viewer. So now we have the control key and the interesting thing about the control key is it's nothing like the control key on Windows. That's the command key it's similar to the control key in Windows. So it controls it's own thing. And you can kinda think of it as the second button or the right click button on Windows. You use it to bring up contextual menus. So for instance here I am in the finder and I can select this file right here. If I conrol and click on it I get a contextual menu and you can see there's a whole bunch of different things I can do. Depending upon the program you're using and what you're control clicking on, it'll bring up different things. They're called contextual menus because it depends on the context. In this case, it's a file in the finder. It might a photo in iphoto, it might be a clip in imovie. It's all sorts of different commands, different things that are brought up depending on what it is your control clicking on. Using a magic mouse or even an apple mouse with a right side click or even a secondary click on a track pad, you can do the same thing here. So, you can actually do this without the control key but the easiest way sometimes is to just do a single regular click with the control key held down to bring up this contextual menu. And like with the option key, the control key can be used to modify commands. So you may have a command A and you may have a control command A or even a control command option A. Which brings us to the final modifier key the shift key. And this is the most straight forward one because while you're typing it simply gives you upper case letters or the characters above the numbers on the keyboard. But it can also be used to modify commands. So for instance, you may have something that command S and shift command S and it's a different command. Usually they're related. A shift is usually just a shift command trying to do it literally. Sometimes this symbol is used to represent the shift key if you're reading documentation. So there's a look at the four modifier keys. If you hear somebody refer to modifier keys, what modifier keys do I need to use to access this shortcut, it's these four keys that they're talking about because simply don't really do anything on their own. Normally on the Mac if you press one of these by itself, it doesn't do anything. You have to then press a character for it to actually perform an action. So I hope you found this look at them useful. Til next time this is Gary with MacMost Now.

Comments: 5 Responses to “MacMost Now 594: Understanding Modifier Keys”

    8 years ago

    Outstanding Gary. Thank you for doing all these videos. You are awesome!



    8 years ago

    Apple could be a little more consistent with its keyboard layouts. For instance, some languages have the ⎇-sign but does not say “option” anywhere while still having the “alt” inscription – leaving a switcher to think that this key is, of course, named Alt. Imagine the confusion that ensues when instructed to apply the “option”-key: It is nowhere to be found – only a key with the outlandish ⎇-sign, but that’s named “alt” so that can’t be it, right?

    8 years ago

    Thank you for this video, I’ve been trying to get info on this topic without results.
    You’re making things so easy to follow Gary, thanks much.


    David Hadley
    8 years ago

    The videos you do are very helpful.
    Having one month ago bought my first MAC I now find that I am using it much more than my Windows computer. The videos have helped so much to keep my interest going through the learning curve of the changeover period – thanks again, David

    Gary Stone
    8 years ago

    That was a great video. It was very easy to follow and your explanations of what the modifier keys are designed and actually used for were right on! Thanks.

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