How to Really Use the Magical Option Key on the Mac

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

Part 2 - More Specific Examples of Option Key Magic

OK, time to get take a look at more specific examples. I now present you with a list of only a few of the best hidden goodies found by engaging the Option key. Keep in mind that this is not an all-inclusive list. It’s up to you to explore. And, guess what? Even after all these years, I will occasionally stumble upon a hidden Option key gem that I never knew existed.

Option Key Shortcuts in Finder

  • Under the Apple menu, Option bypasses About This Mac and goes directly to System Information.
  • Under the Finder menu, Option bypasses the Empty Trash confirmation dialog. This is evident by the disappearance of the ellipsis with the press of the Option key.
  • Under the File menu, Option changes Close to Close All. Duplicate changes to Save As. The venerable Show Info changes to the often useful Show Inspector. Tip: Also try the Control key, and Option-Control combination while in the File menu.
  • Under the Edit menu, Option changes Select All to Deselect All. Paste changes to Move Items Here. This latter one is great for moving versus copying files in Finder.
  • Under the View menu, Option changes Sort By to Arrange By.
  • Under the Go menu,  the normally hidden user Library folder appears.
  • Under the Window folder, Option changes Minimize and Zoom to Minimize All and Zoom All.
  • Specifying Default apps: Would you rather have a particular file open in a specific app instead of the default app when double-clicking the file in Finder? For example, by default, double-clicking a JPEG file opens it in Preview. Instead of doing the whole Get Info method, simply select the image file, and right-click to reveal the contextual menu. When adding the Option key to the mix, you will see the Open With item change to Always Open With. You select the app you want, and from then on, that file will be opened by the app you specified.
  • Disclosure Triangles in Finder file listings: If like me, you prefer viewing your files in List View while in Finder, here’s a neat Option shortcut for you. If a folder contains one or more nested folders, Option-clicking on the disclosure triangle in a closed position next to a folder will expand the folder’s file listing as well as those of all nested folders down the hierarchy. The reverse applies for quickly closing the clicked-on folder and all it’s nested folders.

A file listing in a Finder window in List View

Option-clicking provides added functionality when viewing files in the Finder’s List View

Next: Even More Examples of Option Key Shortcuts

Part 3 - Even More Examples of Option Key Shortcuts

Option Key Shortcuts in Menubar Apps

  • Option-click the Notification Center icon in the menubar to toggle Do Not Disturb.
  • Option-click the Volume icon in the menubar to reveal selectable input and output devices. Why change settings in Sound Preferences when you can do it quickly from the menubar?
  • Option-click the Time Machine icon in the menubar to reveal some additional options.
  • Option-click the Bluetooth icon in the menubar to reveal additional diagnostic details.
  • Option-click the third-party Dropbox app icon in the menubar to reveal a more useful and compact list of commands.

Option Key Shortcuts Used in the Dock

  • Option-click a running app in the Dock to hide it. 
  • Option-click a running - but hung - app in the Dock to use the Force Quit command (or to Relaunch, if Option-clicking on Finder).

Option Key Shortcuts in Dialog Boxes

  • An Option key press while in the System Preferences > Displays reveals a Detect Displays button. This is handy for troubleshooting issues when connected to overhead projectors and external monitors.
  • When attempting to copy a file to a new location that contains a file with the exact same name, the Finder pops up a dialog box that asks whether you want to keep both files, stop the operation, or replace the file. If you try to copy more than one file to a location that already has one or more identically named files, you’ll see a similar dialog box. However, in this case, if you press the Option key while the dialog box is open, the Keep Both button changes to Skip. This allows you to skip the first duplicate, then deals with the next one, and so on until the copy operation is complete or cancelled.


Pressing Option when dialog boxes appear will occasionally change the functionality of buttons

Option Key Shortcuts Within Apps

  • iTunes Radio: Option-click the Favorites star at the top-left to toggle to Genius Shuffle.
  • iPhoto: When rotating a photo thumbnail, press the Option key to Rotate in the opposite direction. When in any of the Edit modes, an Option key press changes the Undo button to Redo.
  • Safari: When in Safari, press the Tab key to move from search field to search field or drop-down menu, down through the page. Use the Option-Tab key combination to get better keyboard control. This will stop you sequentially through every link on the page. You can press Return at any stop to have Safari open that link for you.
  • If you have multiple tabs open in Safari, press the Option key, and click on the close box (indicated by an ‘x’) of any tab. All other tabbed windows will close.
  • If you Option-click a link in Safari, you’ll download the target directly into your designated downloads folder. Clicking a page link will download the target .html file. Clicking a link to a data file will download that file.
  • For precision scrolling when using Safari’s scrollbar, use the Option key when clicking in the scrollbar area. Without the Option key, you move a page at a time. However, with the Option key pressed, you move the scrollbar indicator to the very spot where you Option-clicked. You know, come to think of it… this feature is present system-wide; not just in Safari.
  • Other Apps: In most modern apps, pressing the Option key while popping open the application’s own menu (located adjacent to the Apple menu), you will notice that the Quit command will operate differently. There are two variations of the Quit command depending directly on the status of a particular setting in System Preferences > General. If the checkbox next to “Close windows when quitting an application” is checked, then you can bypass this setting by pressing the Option key when quitting. In this case, you will see Quit and Keep Windows in the application’s menu. On the other hand, if this preference item’s checkbox is unchecked, the Option key bypass in the menu will have you Quit and Close All Windows. All this, of course, governs whether or not open document windows are reopened next time the app is launched.

I could go on, and on and, yes… even, on! But I’ll do both you and myself a favor and stop now.

Your project for this summer is to find other hidden Option-key gems. Add to the discussion below and tell us about handy ones you have found.