How to Really Use the Magical Option Key on the Mac

| How-To

The venerable Mac Option Key has been around since the Apple Macintosh first appeared way back in 1984. Mac users are usually pretty familiar with it, so much so that we sometimes take it for granted. I'm going to show some of the magical things you can do with it.

This key is known generically as a “modifier” key, and shares this moniker with the Command (Apple) key, the Control Key, and the Shift key. The Option key is located on either side of the space bar for your convenience.

The Mac keyboard

The Option key is adjacent to other modifier keys

Modifier keys are used in combination with the regular alpha-numeric keys to provide alternate functionality to keyboard shortcuts. They are also used to help you generate special symbols, alternate character sets and diacritical marks (such as the ones found in résumé, señorita and façade).

Secret Alternate Menu Commands With the Option Key

We’re all familiar with the Finder menus and the list of commands each one offers us. But, did you know that opening a menu while pressing the Option key will reveal otherwise hidden, alternate commands? 

Here’s an example: a common method of closing an open Finder window is to use a Command-W keyboard shortcut. What if you have a number of open Finder windows and you want to close them all, simultaneously? Do you just go to the trouble of clicking the close bubble for each and every window? Do you press Command-W for each window? Or, do you go to the File menu and select Close Window? 

Two views of the Finder File menu

The Finder’s File menu on the left, and with the Option key pressed on the right

Instead, use Option key magic! Pop open the File menu, and look at all your choices listed there. Now, with the menu still open, press the Option key. Notice that several items in the list will change in some way - perhaps different wording, or perhaps the disappearance of normally present ellipses that directly follow certain menu items.

Back to the example at hand. With the Option key pressed while the File menu is open, the item that is normally called Close Window now becomes Close All. You’ll also see the associated keyboard shortcut command change from Command-W to Option-Command-W in case you prefer using just your digits for everything. Finally, if you’d rather use the little red close bubble in an open window in order to close it, by doing so with the Option key pressed, all other open windows will close as well.

What about that matter regarding the ellipsis (…)? You may already know that an ellipsis in a menu command always means that before the command can execute, OS X or the app requires additional input from you. The request is presented in the form of a dialog box. For example, see what happens when you select the Print… command from the File menu. 

The File menu in Pages

The File menu in Pages contains several instances
where ellipses appear after certain commands

In another example, this time in the Apple menu, notice that the Restart, Shutdown and Log Out commands show an ellipsis at the end of each line. This is because, in each of these three cases, you will be presented with a confirmation screen when you select them. Now, with the menu still open press the Option key. You will notice that these ellipses disappear. This leads to a handy shortcut; when you select these commands while pressing the Option Key, the confirmation dialogs will be bypassed, and the command will be executed immediately.

You’ll find that these hidden and poorly documented commands, revealed by pressing the Option key, are found in just about all apps - not just in the Finder. Some day when you have nothing better to do, I urge you to peruse all menus in Finder as well as in your favorite apps. While the menus are open, press the Option key, and notice any variations in the commands listed. You may be surprised at what you’ll find.

There are two other places where the Option key does it’s magic - menubar apps and buttons on dialog boxes. For example, look at your Wi-Fi icon on the menubar. In this case, press Option before clicking on the icon. You will notice that some useful technical information about your Wi-Fi connection is revealed, such as SSID, channel information and security settings.

Two views of the Wi-Fi menu in the menubar

By Option-clicking the Wi-Fi icon in the menubar, certain technical details are revealed

Next: More Specific Examples of Option Key Magic

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Great set of tips, Sandro! Another way to think of the option key in a GUI sense is as the “drag-to-copy” key; at least for most apps. This works and pretty much all Adobe apps, and many Mac native apps like TextEdit. I might use the option key to drag/copy a selection of text, if I already have something saved in the clipboard for example.

Perpetual Learner

Very well structured article, well done!
I am quite the keyboard shortcut collector. Here are a few that I believe are missing from you list, but can also come in handy:
• press Alt while in the Contacts app to highlight the groups of a selected contact
• press Alt while pressing the spacebar in Finder or the Desktop to Slideshow selected files, instead of the Quick Look
• press Alt and Tab in a text editing app (e.g. Stickies, TextEdit, etc.) to change the current line into a list
• press Alt while selecting text, in a text editing app, to make a rectangular selection
• in iTunes 11, press Alt while selecting File > Create New Version, to change ‘Create AAC Version’ to ‘Convert to AAC…’
• in iTunes 10, press Alt while selecting the Advanced menu to change ‘Create AAC Version’ to ‘Convert to AAC…’
• in iTunes 11, press Alt while selecting the View menu to change ‘Show Duplicate’ Items to ‘Show Exact Duplicate Items’
• in iTunes 10, press Alt while selecting the File menu to change ‘Display Duplicates’ to ‘Display Exact Duplicates’
• and last but not least, hold Alt during the computer startup to show the Startup Manager (which displays all bootable volumes)

Pandora Dogg

Thanks for the treasure trove of helpful option-key tips.

One thing - regarding collapsing nested folders by clicking the disclosure triangle, it didn’t work for me.  A little bit of experimenting revealed that the option-command-click method worked.

Late 2012 Mad Mini running 10.9.3

Pandora Dogg

Sorry…I’m using a late 2012 MAC mini, not a Mad Mini!

Perpetual Learner

Dear Pandora Dogg,

I’ve used this on quite a few Mac computers, both running previous OS versions and the latest 10.9.3, and it works on all of them. The one thing you need to notice, in case you are making a mistake, is that this only works on Finder windows that are set on List View or Cover Flow (on the other two views the Alt key has another effect). To change the view, you click on one of the four buttons on the left of the Toolbar - the 2nd or 4th button, respectively - or you can see all four views under the View menu, or even press cmd-2 or cmd-4.

If you are absolutely sure this shortcut does not work and you are on the correct view, perhaps there is something we are not taking into account. For example, the shortcut to reveal the user Library with the Alt key does not work anymore if you set a direct keyboard shortcut for the user Library (you then use the Shift key instead).

You could try the shortcut on a new admin user, which has no user settings. And if it doesn’t work there either, then perhaps you do indeed have a Mad mini wink.

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