Charles Moore's Mailbag

The Copy-and-Replace vs. Copy-and-Merge Debate Continues

Charles Moore - 2005.10.31 - Tip Jar

The Replace vs. Merge Debacle

From Mark McKenney

Dear Mr. Moore:

I was just reading your Ramblings from Oct 24, 2005. I admit to being primarily a Mac user who uses XP only at his place of work (because that is all the hospital uses). I am used to the Mac Finder 'replace' behaviour, but I can sympathize with anyone who switches after having used what Mr. Templeton has used for so long.

Unfortunately I believe he assumed that there are computer 'norms' that all software designers should follow. That I believe is too much to expect in our cosmopolitan world. We 'try' to standardize, but we still have PAL and NTSC video 'standards', and I doubt that either will disappear too soon. We have electrical devices that work fine in the US, but require 'adapters' to plug in to European power outlets. The same could be said of European electrical devices trying to plug into US outlets. There are cars manufactured with steering wheels on both left and right side of the car (and there are probably some with it in the middle).

We have 2 major measuring systems, metric and English. The Hubble Space Telescope debacle was a good example of where the metric/English systems caused a huge error, that cost millions to correct - i.e. the different engineering parts that worked on the lens not using the exact same units across all the companies involved in the manufacturing process.

There are countless other examples where 'standards' would be nice, but very few times have they had worldwide acceptance. One example, though not completely accepting, is some of the basics of the WWW, such as domain naming conventions (i.e. .edu, .gov, etc.), but even those have undergone modification such that we now have two domain naming conventions, that I am aware of.

The Mac OS, in my limited experience, has been one of fairly rigid requirements for software developers to follow certain conventions for menu displays, keyboard shortcuts, etc. That certainly hampers the creativity of some programmers, who may have a 'better' way to do something and thus modify their code to break some of Apple's rules. For good or bad, that often creates a program that fails with the next 'update' in the OS, because it failed to adhere to some Apple programming guideline.

That strictness has made my use of Apple software better, because it forces programmers to create very similar dialog boxes, routines, etc., which made each Mac application appear (and to a certain extent behave) the same from one application to the next. My lag time in learning a new Mac application is reduced because of that interface similarity.

So, as unfortunate as Mr. Templeton's experience was, he admitted to ignoring dialog boxes and assumed that Apple would follow some 'standard' he designated as being across every other computer operating system in existence (though some of the responses showed that Windows has not always had that 'merge' folder behaviour).

I try not to 'assume' that what I use in the Mac OS X is exactly the same in XP, and I instead assume things will be different (i.e. menu choices, dialog boxes, right click options). I have simply learned to deal with how XP wants me to do things. When I am home, I do the reverse and do not expect Mac OS X to behave like XP.

I found a fascinating (and extremely long) discussion reaching over 160 comments, Braindead Finder Behaviour, which is full of comments (pro, con, neutral, etc.) on just what Mr. Templeton dislikes about the OS X Finder. The web site owner appears to be another 'Mac Switcher' who was bitten by the 'replace' rather then 'merge' scenario for his photos.

To be realistic, we have also encountered new Apple behaviour [that ruffled quite a few 'I used a Mac since the Lisa but this new X is...], when we went for 9 to X, and I read many a comment from OS 9 users who had to learn a different way to do something they had been doing back to the days of OS 7 (or earlier).

I had difficulties also in my transition, but I have persevered and prefer (99.9% of the time) to be in OS X, rather then go back to running OS 9 on my Mac.

Yours truly,
Mark McKenney

PS: Your column continues to be a fairly balanced (pro/con) source of Apple information, and makes my visits to Low End Mac a pleasure.

Hi Mark,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on this matter. There actually have been a few cars with the steering wheel in the middle. One that comes to mind is a (very) limited production McLaren sports car back in the 80s. I also have a vague recollection of a Ferrari with a central steering wheel, but that just may be my imagination.

Anyway, point well taken. Disparate terminological standards, measurement protocols, and so forth can cause no end of confusion. I live in Canada, where metric measure has been the standard for about thirty years (sort of), but lumber and plywood are still sold in feet and inches, certain foods by the pound, and many people, at least of my generation, still calculate fuel economy in miles per gallon. Personally, I can't tell you with any accuracy my height in centimeters or my weight in kilograms. I expect I will still be thinking in imperial measure till they carry me out. However, one adapts where necessary.

Like you, I now prefer OS X. I never found the learning curve particularly difficult, although there are still aspects of the Classic user interface that prefer, and I still use OS 9 regularly on my WallStreet PowerBook. I find switching back and more than no more of a challenge than alternating between cars with automatic transmissions and stick shifts.

Glad you enjoy Miscellaneous Ramblings.


Yes, Mac Finder Copying Is Flawed

From Liam Greenwood

Hi Charles

I have read the comments on Mac Finder Copy Not Flawed, Just Different From Windows and have to strongly disagree. I am sure that Finder does work as advertised and always has - I am not going to put my data at risk by testing it, and I am glad that you have published the warnings on how careless the Finder is with data.

Interestingly, Mac OS X doesn't suffer this flaw. If you have 2 directories with data in them you do a recursive copy of one into the other (cp -R directory1/ destination-directory/). This copies all the data in directory1 and all it's subordinate directories into destination-directory. It will overwrite files in the destination-directory which have the same name as files in directory1, but it will leave any other files and directories in destination-directory unchanged.

So in my experience every OS has the same behavior when copying a directory into an existing directory, including Mac OS X. The only odd-man out is the Finder. Therefore I would class it as at least unhelpful, and certainly inconsistent and dangerous behavior. Nothing should play fast and loose with a user's data, even if it has done so historically.


Good point Liam,

One learns something new all the time.

Having been an exclusive Mac user for more than a dozen years, this issue never registered on me before.


'Replace' and 'Merge' Have Different Meanings

From Daniel A. Shockley


Here's what I see as the problem for Robert Templeton:

Yes, Mac OS X should have an OS-level option to "merge" two folders. However, the real problem Robert is dealing with is that, as is often the case in my experience, Microsoft decided to add 'useful' side-effects without explicitly stating what they are doing. Replace means replace. If you are replacing one folder with another, then the original one should be gone. If you are offering to instead "merge" the two folders, then the dialog should say so.

I have often found that Windows users have come to expect to have memorized what something means, since the dialogs are often poorly worded, confusing, or just plain wrong (as in this case).

Robert, the Mac OS will generally tell you what it is going to do. Believe it. Then you won't have to memorize what does what. Replacing means the original is gone - look up the word. If Microsoft doesn't know the English language, and they've taught Windows users a nonstandard meaning, you can hardly blame Apple.

That said, I wish Apple would put a built-in merge option for folders. There are utilities that will do this for you, but it should be OS-level.

Thank you,

Apple Should Adopt the Least Destructive Behavior

From Phil Robberson

Robert is right, of course. Whether dragging one [folder] onto another of the same name should replace the underlying [folder] or just merge with it is purely arbitrary, but given that 95% of the world is accustomed to merging, that should at least be a choice - if not the default behavior.

I'm a Mac user for 15 years and am used to Mac behavior, but someone rational and objective would make the least destructive setting the default. Merge can be undone (though Finder now does have some undo capability) much more easily than replace.

My 2¢ worth.

Phillip in Japan
Outside Looking In
Outside Looking In Podcast

Hi Phillip,

User choice and non-destructiveness are certainly desirable where one's data are concerned. A built-in file merge function in the Finder would be cool. in the meantime, I find a ChronoSync does a good job.


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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at and a columnist at If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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