18 Keystroke Commands Every Mac User Should Know

Way back in the earliest days of the Macintosh, Apple did something very clever. In addition to standard OS calls for disk access and standard graphic routines every programmer could use, Apple adopted standard keyboard commands and recommended they be used in every app.

These are a lot quicker than taking your hands from the keyboard to grab the mouse, choose a menu, and select the Open, Save, or Quit command, to name just three examples.

Command keyfile menuMost of these use the Command key, usually abbreviated Cmd in books and online. It’s usually marked with what some call the splat key, which looks like Command symbol. You’ll see this with lots of commands when you pull down a menu, such as the one on the right. And most of the time, the keystroke is mnemonic, such as Cmd-Q to quit, Cmd-S to save, etc.

Quit: Cmd-Q

Unlike Windows, when you close a window on your Mac, most programs do not quit – they remain in memory waiting for you to open your next document, spreadsheet, photo, etc. This has always been the default behavior for Mac software to avoid having to load and reload applications. If you really want to quit a program, most of the time you have to use the Quit command, which is found in the File menu – or you can hold down the Command key and type Cmd-Q.

Open: Cmd-O

If you want to open a document, you can find it in the Finder and double-click it, or if the app is already open, type Cmd-O to use the Open command to open your document.

Close Window (or Tab): Cmd-W

Have documents open you no longer need to work with? Have too many browser pages or tabs to work efficiently? Cmd-W lets you close the current tab or windows in a flash.

Full Screen: Cmd-Ctrl-F

Full screen apps came to the Mac in force with OS X 10.7 Lion, but some developers give it to you with older versions of Mac OS X. For instance, the TenFourFox browser toggles full-screen mode when you type Cmd-Ctrl-F – as do most browsers (Safari being the notable exception) in OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.

New Document: Cmd-N

To create a new word processing document, spreadsheet, Photoshop image, etc., use Cmd-N to create a new one.

Save: Cmd-S

Although some programs save automatically as you go along, historically that was not the case. While some programs can be set to auto-save every 5 minutes or so, the quickest way to save whatever you’re working on is to type Cmd-S – or you could grab the mouse, choose the File menu, and select Save.

To repeat a mantra from the earliest days of computing: Save early; save often.

Save As/Duplicate: Cmd-Shift-S

If you want to save a copy of a file under a different name or to a different destination, Cmd-Shift-S lets you do that. This is one of those things that has been deprecated starting with OS X 10.7 Lion in favor of the Duplicate command, which now has the same keyboard shortcut.

Print: Cmd-P

Back in the day, printing your document was the easiest way to share it, so Apple adopted Cmd-P for the Print command. That has never changed. The other option is to go to the File menu and choose Print.


Copy: Cmd-C

While the Mac long ago added select-and-drag to move text, it’s often easier to just copy it – especially if you want to take it to another program. You can highlight your text, image, etc. and then choose Copy from the Edit menu, or you can type Cmd-C te have it copied to the clipboard.

Paste: Cmd-V

This one is not mnemonic, but Cmd-P was already being used to print, so Apple chose the key next to C for the Paste command.

Cut: Cmd-X

And here’s another non-mnemonic one. Cmd-C means copy, so it can’t also mean cut. X is on the other side of C, so that’s why Apple chose Cmd-X (as in “to X out”) for Cut.

Undo: Cmd-Z

If Apple hadn’t already selected Cmd-U for underlined text, and Xerox PARC was already using Cmd-Z for undo, so it stuck. In older apps with only one level of undo, hitting Cmd-Z a second time will usually undo the undo.

Redo: Cmd-R

You probably won’t find this one in software with only one level of undo, but when apps keep track of multiple undos, Cmd-R lets you redo and undone command. It’s more intuitive than it sounds.

Select All: Cmd-A

Sometimes you want to copy an entire document, web page, etc. You don’t even need to touch the mouse. Type Cmd-A to Select All and then Cmd-V to paste it into a new or open document.

I use this one all the time when migrating pages on Low End Mac from standalone HTML pages to WordPress: Open the file in Camino (because it doesn’t change things as much as more modern browsers), select all, copy, and then paste it to a new WordPress page. Lots of additional steps after that, but this is the quickest way to start the conversion process.

Text Styles

These keystrokes toggle things like boldface, italic, and underline on and off. Or select text with your mouse and use the keystroke to apply the style.

  • Bold: Cmd-B
  • Italic: Cmd-I
  • Underline: Cmd-U
  • Plain text: Cmd-T

force quit windowForce Quit: Cmd-Option-Esc

This is your emergency keystroke of next-to-last resort when your Mac gets hung up. Cmd-OptionEsc brings up a window listing all open applications. If OS X realizes a program has locked up, it will tell you. You can select any active app and try to quit is using Force Quit Application.

If that doesn’t do the job, it’s time to hold down your Mac’s power key until it shuts down completely.

I hope you’ve found these keystrokes helpful, and if you think I’ve missed an important one, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!

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5 thoughts on “18 Keystroke Commands Every Mac User Should Know

  1. Command-R is hardly a “standard”. Some programs use command-Y. I prefer command-shift-Z (which is perhaps the most common).

    Command-Tab for switching applications is very useful (and you can keep the application list visible by keeping the command-key down, and quit applications as you go).

    Command-H to hide the current application and command-option-H to hide all other applications I have found more useful than (say) ctrl-command-F for fullscreen mode.

    • Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve run into a few users who didn’t know how to undo full screen, which is why I included Ctrl-Cmd-F.

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