Mac keyboard symbols

Sunday 3 August 2008

Apple computers are beautiful, Apple computers are the pinnacle of usability, I grant all of that. But here’s something that for the life of me I cannot figure out. Why don’t the menu symbols for modifier keys (control, alt, shift) appear on the keyboards?

Like any modern operating system, OS X menu items have keyboard short cuts, and because there are so many menu items, they occasionally need modifiers other than the command key. Here’s a menu from Safari:

Safari bookmark menu showing key modifiers

The command symbol we all understand because it appears on the keyboard, but what are those other two modifiers? Why not print them on the keys?

Close-up of a Mac keyboard

The thingy next to “Show All Bookmarks” is for option, which is labelled on the keyboard with “option” and, alternately, “alt”, but doesn’t have the symbol. The big up-arrow next to “Add Bookmark Folder” is not the up-arrow on the keyboard, but the shift key, which is labelled only with “shift”.

And God forbid you should have to ever Force Quit an application. Is that a Quicktime symbol?:

Apple menu, with Force Quit Finder with four modifier keys

I must not be the only one who is confused, because Dan Rodney started off his thorough Mac OS X Keyboard Shortcuts page with a translation chart:

A translation chart from symbol to key

Why no symbols on modifier keys? Or, why is the command key special? Why is it labelled with its symbol while the others are not. This seems like a really basic usability rule: refer to the same thing the same way in different contexts. Is there some logic to this, or is it just that the minimalist hardware design gurus win out over the operating system usability guys?


carl tyler 9:50 AM on 3 Aug 2008

I thought the exact same thing.

Michael Foord 10:01 AM on 3 Aug 2008

Hmmm... on my Mac Pro wired keyboard all those symbols *are* there. From the diagram above the only exceptions are the escape key and the control key - alt (option), delete, shift etc all have the symbols shown.

Winfried Maus 11:01 AM on 3 Aug 2008

It gets even better when you have a German keyboard version - try finding "[", "]", "{" or "}" on a non-american Apple keyboard. Even with the older Apple keyboards this has been a usability nightmare.

That's why I chose the "workaround" of buying a Microsoft Natural keyboard. And there's some good news about them, too: The Microsoft OS X keyboard drivers are not compatible with Apple's Java 6 implementation - the keyboard does not work in Java 6 apps, as for example Netbeans 6.1 with JavaFX. Isn't that beautiful? ;-)

Ian Phillips 11:23 AM on 3 Aug 2008

All of the symbols are right there on both of my macs - an Air and a fairly ancient G4 PowerBook.

Rik Hemsley 11:29 AM on 3 Aug 2008

The other problem I have with Mac keyboarding is that I'm never sure whether I need to use cmd-whatever or ctrl-whatever. I usually have to just guess and see which works. And then I forget again.

Why four modifier keys? Aren't three enough?

Ned Batchelder 11:48 AM on 3 Aug 2008

Michael and Ian: I wonder if we have a UK/US difference here. The MacBook Air pictured on the Apple site ( clearly doesn't have the keyboard symbols.

Michael Foord 11:52 AM on 3 Aug 2008

I assumed it was a wired keyboard / laptop keyboard difference? (Although what Ian says would appear to contradict that...)

mark Williamson 12:50 PM on 3 Aug 2008

The UK apple keyboards do have them. However # (hash to us in the UK and disturbingly 'pound' to Americans) is hidden under option 4 - which is great for developers....

masklinn 1:43 PM on 3 Aug 2008

> It gets even better when you have a German keyboard version - try finding "[", "]", "{" or "}" on a non-american Apple keyboard.

This is why you have the virtual keyboard. Also, I don't know for german but on the french keyboard they're combinations of the parens keys and modifiers (alt or alt and shift, I think, I can type them when I'm using my mac but I don't remember the exact chord)

Lee Hinde 1:53 PM on 3 Aug 2008

So, a slight tangent, but the command key has a symbol because, historically, the symbol was the only character on the key. And it looks like the symbols on the other keys are/were rarely present.

Josh 7:56 PM on 3 Aug 2008

Agreed. My MacBook doesn't have the symbols, and there's no reason why. Allow me to pile on: there's no excuse for Apple to ship a single computer without a second mouse button and without a forward delete key.

Ben Poole 4:51 AM on 4 Aug 2008

I'm pretty sure it's a US / UK / Other difference, as my Macbook keyboard features most of the icons.

Ben Smith 1:37 AM on 5 Aug 2008

Yes. It's a US/most-of-the-rest-of-the-world difference. The European keyboards, which all use the ISO key arrangement label the modifier keys symbolically. Perhaps this is for reasons of being multi-lingual. The US keyboards (ANSI arrangement) use English most places. The command key is the exception: it has been decorated with a symbol since the days of the original Macintosh.

Here's an example of an ISO keyboard (German layout):

Rich Seymour 10:24 AM on 14 Aug 2008

Ever since I got my MacBook Pro generation 1 (aka, the gettin-the-kinks-out generation), I have struggled with the Option key symbol. What is it even... representing? the drop shadow of a backwards italicized T?

I still call the command-key 'open-apple' since there used to be an Open Apple and a Closed Apple on old Apple //es and IIgs's ...

Ugh... the whole thing is like a twisted joke on "usability".

Draco18s 5:13 PM on 4 Sep 2008

So that's what that symbol is...
I gave up using Mac keyboard shortcuts because the only symbol I knew was Shift (ok, and Tab and Delete, the delete key is marked and the tab symbol is marked on the windows keyboard with that symbol. Page up, page down, enter (non-keypad) look obvious enough (ok, the windows keyboard enter has that symbol too). Arrow keys are arrow keys.

But yeah. I'd never ever figured out the alt key.

jon long 7:04 AM on 14 Sep 2008

In finder help for keyboard symbols is has a forward and backward delete keys but how does the forward delete work?

Auisce 9:07 AM on 21 Sep 2008

The UK keyboard is labeled better with 2 exceptions, # and ⌃.

1. To get # requires "alt ⌥" + 3 because ⇧ + 3 = £.
People refer to an "option" key but on current UK keyboards it's labeled "alt ⌥" which I'm fine with as most other keyboards have "Alt" and "Alt GR" and ⌥ is what's used in the menus.

2. ⌃ is labeled "ctrl" but hey, look at any non-Apple keyboard. I would have preferred 'ctrl ⌃'.

If you don't like the US keyboard and you're using English, I recommend a UK keyboard or you could buy a Sharpie.

Jon 9:25 PM on 29 Nov 2008

@Josh. Actually, any newer Apple Keyboard, like the notebooks or the new BlueTooth keyboard, all you have to do for forward delete is Fn+Backspace.

Laurin 4:26 PM on 12 Dec 2008

Thank you! I was so lost as to how to find those symbols.

Sue 5:13 PM on 23 Dec 2008

I'm late to this discussion, but it is obviously ongoing. I'm grateful for the info, and particularly for the graphic reference to the chart by Dan Rodney. Just as a corporate culture comment, I spent a number of years working for a large insurance company so I've seen things like this happen. When a company is young and small, decisions are made by a small number of people, all of whom understand the philosophy and know every one whose process might impact decisions. Over time, people leave, new people come in, areas of responsibility originally controlled by one department move to some other department which has a different outlook. Every 10 years or so, maybe the corporation will recognize that things are de-volving & fix it -- or maybe not!

Kamikazexk 6:53 PM on 26 Dec 2008

Hey thanks alot for this, i'm trying to get better at photoshop with just using the commands and it was a bit hard especially when I didn't know many of the symbols(im a new mac owner).

bobby 3:15 PM on 16 Feb 2009

omg i love macs..i wish that every comp in the word was a MACCCCCC i would own them all!!

Michael 1:42 PM on 26 Jun 2009

Back before the great return of Steve Jobs, all Apple keyboards had the shift and option symbols on the keyboards. You can thank him for getting rid of them.

d mcintyre 5:02 PM on 7 Sep 2009

I cant find the delete key on my mac book (english qwerty I think.

Auisce 6:17 PM on 7 Sep 2009

d mcintyre,

Is it not below the eject key? It should say "delete" on it.

donza 5:34 AM on 5 Oct 2009

Hi I just bought a mac keyboard...does anybody know if there an 'insert' button like on a PC keyboard, i.e. to erase text automatically by typing over?

joza 10:59 PM on 2 Dec 2009


ana 12:57 PM on 22 Jun 2010

where is "@" on mac keyboard?

Auisce 1:04 PM on 22 Jun 2010

Shift 2

ana 12:03 PM on 25 Jun 2010

alt+shift+2 but tnx! :)

Auisce 12:07 PM on 25 Jun 2010

Really? on my UK extended:
shift+2= @
alt+shift+2= ™
alt=2= €

naymin 4:43 AM on 8 Jul 2010

i want to keyboard symbol

steven 1:04 AM on 27 Oct 2010

just in case another curious soul happens upon this aging thread . . . Sue got it just about right. these funky modifier keys and their symbols came about in the early days of the Mac. I was a hardcore user for about 10 years, starting in 1987, then got force-marched by corporate America onto that desolate wasteland of abysmal design called Windows till a couple weeks ago, when I had the opportunity to switch back. I was amused to find so much the same in the Mac interface, even after almost 15 years away, but I have to admit I had to refresh my memory on the mapping from menu symbols to keyboard labels. so don't be frustrated, celebrate the obscure history you're reliving every day at your keyboard!

dvdrtrgn 12:29 PM on 26 Nov 2010

I don't miss the "Apple" symbol for the Command-key. It is a stupid way to use that logo. For 15 years I've called that key "Command." That is what it is and what it does. It takes about 20 seconds to figure out the Control/ctrl and Option/alt symbols. Use the process of elimination... Shift and command are obvious.

Command is a beautiful key and more accessible (via thumb) for keying combos than control (via pinky). I sometimes refer to the "apple-key" for the one retard at work that needs that terminology. (To those who get confused about whether to use "control" for commands, your helplessness is non-addressable.)

lynn Trelles-Gaines 6:16 PM on 29 Jan 2011

I do not understand the symbols and am ready to go back to the PC.

chandrangani 12:01 AM on 14 Feb 2011

I want to know the differences between MAC keyboard and 101-key enhanced key board

Perry Lawrence 10:35 AM on 7 Jun 2011

I am going back to my Dell. The Mac is so over for me.

Rose 12:21 PM on 12 Jun 2011

Hopefully the Mac hardware design team will listen here. They are promoting the wonders of apple and this unnecessary confusion with speed keys is so easily avoidable. I am at a loss as to why it has not been addressed earlier. I so miss my 'end' and 'home' keys on my PC. Yes the wonderful touchpad scroll but when you have a huge document and want to go to the beginning or end with one click it is IMPOSSIBLE on a Mac. I feel like an industrial process worker sliding away on the touchpad just to get my curser home..what a joke for a product that is supposed to be so advanced. What makes it so bad is the keyboard shortcuts are different for each application and often they do not work anyway.

Mr Anthony Cotton 2:35 PM on 12 Jun 2011

It`s just what i have been looking for. Do you know if you can get small sticky labels for the keyboard?
Yours Sincerely Mr Anthony Cotton

juspam 3:02 PM on 18 Jun 2011

Where can I find a list of all the things that can be done with the keys on my mac? And where is forward delete?

juspam 3:10 PM on 18 Jun 2011

...and how do I make a screenprint on a mac? Message to Lynn Trelles-Gaines - don't give up, I miss my PC too so I am going to offer myself to Mac for a job on 'interpretation'!

teknozen 7:03 PM on 24 Jun 2011

I only occasionally bother w/ diacritical marks (who needs them, anyway?), but all it takes is "mac umlat" (you don't even have to spell it correctly) to be whisked away to a Google page w/ all the variations on ümlaut for keyboards in all the Euro languages + the ansi code + + +, and if, say, you have wicked bad arthritis, you don't even need to contort your fingers into "shift-option-anything." Copy and Paste, my children!

What the frak are these people bitching about? If nobody has told you about Google (really do you suppose anyone on the planet exists who does not understand the phrase "Google it?"), quick! Go ask the first eight year-old you encounter to show you how.

And if you are not quick enough to recognize the quantum gap in elegance between Mac OS and Windows, then you don't deserve the privilege of using a Mac. There is not a problem. You are the problem. Quit whining and and crawl back into that slough of mediocrity whence you mistakenly emerged.

Ditto anyone who asks for "small sticky labels for the keyboard? " First, why? and secondly, doh! Google it. That is why God made search engines so that we would never again have to endure absurd questions from half-wit twits. O.K. Just this once, because I am not really a mean person, simply the variety that does not suffer fools gladly. Here you are:

Frank F Dyer 11:22 AM on 11 Aug 2011

To have a ready reference of key symbols for a Mac keyboard all one needs to do is a screen shot of Ned's table (or some other table). Name the file Mac Keys or whatever. Then when one needs the table just click on that file on the desktop.

Elizabeth Rush 9:05 PM on 31 Oct 2011

Comments to teknozen

When I did not understand the first symbol for "Show all bookmarks" I DID GOOGLE IT. That is how I found this page. How does that make me a half-wit?

How does asking a question mean I do not deserve to own a MAC. I PURCHASED A MAC. That is what makes me deserve having it and learning to use it.

If I managed this site, I would ban you for being rude and calling us fools.

A fool is the person who does NOT ask the experts when they do not understand something.

In His peace,

grant 5:58 PM on 13 Nov 2011

trying to help my wife... she uses a Mac Pro I have a Mac Desktop. Anyway, trying to figure out what keys to push to have an "arrow" pointing up or an "arrow" point down, as to show either an increase or decrease in something without using the words "increase or decrease." Can someone help me?

chris 4:18 PM on 17 Feb 2012

in system preferences, go to Keyboard, then hit the box by Show Keyboard & Character Viewers in menu bar. Then look up by the time (at least for me) and there you have it. Show character viewer gives you every symbol you could want. it even recognizes Emoji that i dl'ed. never doubt your keys again! it's official!
great job ned!

Xavier Ninnis 10:40 PM on 10 Mar 2012

My Elizabeth, what with that oh-so-precious sig, I would've guessed you'd be a bit more forgiving.

Chris 2:17 PM on 29 May 2016

After years of struggling with this, I decided to "print" the symbols myself. Basically they're transparent stickers for each key with the real symbol on it:

SangHunPark 11:56 PM on 20 Jun 2016

I thought the exact same thing.
and I finally found your article.

FRANCIS J. KIERAS 5:34 PM on 14 Aug 2016


Boydston 9:22 PM on 18 Aug 2016

And 8 years later, Apple still has not figured out how stupid it is to references keyboard keys by a symbol that is not on the referenced key.

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