Understanding the Mac Finder Arrange By Setting

Although it has been around for many versions of macOS, the Arrange By setting in the Finder continues to confuse users who try to use it to set the sort order in a Finder window. Arrange By is for grouping files by kind, date, size and other criteria. For simple file name sorting, you should have it set to None, and then use the column headings to sort.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: Understanding the Mac Finder Arrange By Setting.

So let's take a look at the Arrange tool. It has been around for years but a lot of Mac users still don't understand exactly what it does and how it's different than sorting. To best look at it let's switch from Icon view here in the Finder to List view. So we see the list of all the files and folders and things in this folder called Docs. Now if we want to sort these then one way to do it is to click on the column heading. So here I've got Name and Date Modified and Size. So if I wanted to sort them, say, by size I can click on it and it will sort them by size. You can see the little arrow here that indicates the direction of the sort. I can click it again and it sorts in the opposite direction. The same with Date Modified. To get it back to alphabetical order I can sort by Name and go in either direction.

A lot of people though see the Arrange By menu either through the button here or going to View, Arrange By and instantly think of arrange as sort. All they want to do is sort by something. Like File name. They go to Arrange By and then they get results they don't expect. Arrange By does something different. What it does, when you select one of these, is it will group files together.

So let's do Arrange by Kind. Notice now that everything is broken up into four groups in this case. There's a bunch of folders, there's documents, PDF documents and Images. Inside each one things are sorted alphabetically. You can still sort inside each group by clicking on a column head. So if I wanted to sort by Date Modified it doesn't change which group things are in. Inside each group it's sorted by Date Modified. You can do the same thing with Size and even with Kind because even though we have arranged by Kind turned on inside these groups, like documents, there are some subgroups like Plain Text files, RTF documents. So sorting by Kind will change the order inside those.

So what happens is people go and say I want to sort everything by name and they select Name to do a sort by name. You don't need that. That's Arrange By Name not sort by name. What you want to do is set Arrange By to None. In other words turn the Arrange By function off. Then simply click on the column headings to Sort By file name.

Why have Arrange By name there at all? After all if I select it I don't see any difference. It's not like it groups it together by the first letter of the file name or anything like that. So what does Arrange By do? Well, Arrange By does something else in Icon view. So let's switch back to Arrange By, None, and go to Icon view. Now we've got icons here. I can move these wherever I want and create any kind of arrangement. Group them together and just put them different places randomly. But when I turn on Arrange By it's going to ignore my placements and group them together.

So let's try Arrange By Kind here in Icon view. You can see it groups them together in the those same categories. Folders, Documents, PDF Documents, and Images. You still see them as Icon view. But now you can't drag them around anymore. They kind of snap into place. So when you choose Arrange By, Name, what it does is it arranges the icons by name and you no longer have the ability to drag them around. But if you switch to None it remembers the positions where you put each icon. So that's why there's Arrange By Name. When you're using Icon view you can have it automatically snap into place.

If I were to create a new file that was between letters A and H, it would fit right in here and everything would move over. None gives me the ability to place it where I want. Now in List view and Column view it really doesn't make a difference whether you use Name or you use None. So if you want to sort files the way you want to sort them, then certainly set it to None. Don't mess with Arrange By.

I personally don't use Arrange By very often. I usually have files of one type or another inside of a folder in my organization structure so having Arrange By None is fine for what I do. For somethings it can be very useful. Like, for instance, Date Added groups them together by time. You can do different things. You know grouping by Tags, grouping by Applications that you used. But let's say that you do want to clean this up. You could use Arrange By Name and it will lock it into place. But it still remembering that you've moved things around there.

What you want to do is with Arrange By None selected, then you can go to View and Clean Up or Clean Up By. So if you say Clean Up By Name, it's going to actually physically move each one there. So now these are still things I can move around and drag but using None they're all, kind of, in their proper place. So a lot of times people use Arrange By to get things nice and neat but what they really want to do is use Clean Up or Clean Up By and then continue to use Arrange By None.

Now Arrange By also works in Open and Save dialogue. So here I am in TextEdit and I'm going to do Open and inside of this Open dialogue you can see I've got the Arrange By button here. So I can actually arrange these by Kind. I can arrange these by Size and if I want it to be in alphabetical order I would go None and then I would click on the column heading here. So another problem I see people having is they say Arrange By Name here but they've got some other column heading selected for sorting and they don't notice that. So the best thing to do is Arrange By None for alphabetical order or you can use one of these tools. You can also switch to Icon view here as well. Here you can Arrange By Name, Kind, and all of that. You can do Column view there as well. So you can do that in all Open and Save dialogues. It works kind of like a mini Finder window.

Comments: 2 Responses to “Understanding the Mac Finder Arrange By Setting”

    1 year ago

    Hi Garry,

    Thanks for another useful one.
    I would like sub-folders in both list view & column view to display first, and then, after that all files in the particular folder.
    Ie, if I sort by Name (alphabetical) then Folders must bie first (0-9; A-Z) and then the files below that (0-9; A-Z)
    Similar to how explorer in Windows worked. Is this possible on Finder List View & Column View?
    Regards, Sas (South Africa)

    1 year ago

    Sas: Not possible with any combination that I can see. It comes down to the fact that if exactly what you want was possible, then exactly what others want would also need to be possible, which means there would be a complex interface that would be difficult to learn/use.

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