Option key

The 'Option key' is a modifier key present on Apple keyboards. It is located between the Control key and Command key on a typical Mac keyboard. For desktop keyboards, there are usually two, while a laptop may have only one to make room for the arrow keys. Since the 1990s, "alt" typically appears on the key, as well, for use as an Alt key with non-Mac software, such as Unix and Windows programs. The Option key in a Mac operating system functions differently from the Alt key under other Unix-like systems or Microsoft Windows. Most notably, it is not used to access menus or hotkeys, but is instead used as a modifier for other command codes, and also to provide easier access to various accents and symbols.

Apple commonly uses the symbol ⌥ (U+2325, 8997 in decimal) to represent the option key. This symbol represents a microswitch, allowing the current to go one of two directions.

From 1980 to 1984, this key was known as the closed apple key, and had a black line drawing of a filled-in apple on it. (See command key for information about the history and the "open apple".)

Use of the Option key

Alternative keyboard input

The use of the Option key is similar to that of the AltGr key on European keyboards of IBM-compatible PCs, in the sense that it can be used to type additional characters, symbols and diacritical marks. The options available differ depending on the keyboard input locale that the user has selected. For example, in the U.S. English keyboard input, Option+a produces the "å" character, and Option+4 produces the cent sign "¢".

The Option key is often used in conjunction with special keys like tab, delete, and return to provide alternate functions. For example, Option+Return typically produces a line break that is not interpreted as a paragraph break.

Alternative buttons and menu items

The key is also used to provide for alternative menu items and buttons when pressed down. Examples:

  • Safari, Finder - the Option key causes the "Close Window" menu item to switch to "Close All Windows" when pressed down. Consequently, clicking a window's close box with the option key depressed invokes "close all" as well. This functionality is a de facto Macintosh standard and available in numerous other programs.
  • Dock - the Option key causes the "Hide" and "Quit" menu items in the context menu of a Dock icon to switch to "Hide Others" and "Force Quit."
  • iTunes - the Create Playlist button switches to a Create Smart Playlist button.
  • iPhoto - the rotate image button toggles between a "rotate right" and a "rotate left."

The iPhoto example is an example of a control whose behavior is governed by a preference which is temporarily inverted by holding down the Option key. The preference in this case is which way to rotate the image: If the user changes the default rotation direction in the Preferences to clockwise, holding down Option will make the button rotate counterclockwise instead, and vice versa. It is common for such controls — that is, those whose behavior is governed by a preference — to be invertible in this way.

Common Keyboard navigations

In text areas, the Option key can be used for quick keyboard navigation.

  • Option-Left/Right - navigate to the previous/next word.
    • Windows equivalent: Ctrl-Left/Right
  • Option-Up/Down - navigate to the head/end of current paragraph.
    • Terminal equivalent: Shift-Home/End
    • Windows equivalent: Home/End
  • Option-Page up/Page down - navigate caret up/down a page. Without the Option key, the Page up/Page down keys let the page view scroll up/down a page without moving the caret.
    • Windows equivalent: Page up/Page down

Alternative Mouse actions

When keeping the Option key pressed when using the mouse, the mouse action can change behaviour

  • option-mouse clicking an application other than the current one, automatically hides the current application and switches to the clicked application.
  • When dragging an item (file in the Finder, or layer in Adobe Photoshop, for instance), keeping Option pressed will make sure you Duplicate something instead of moving it.

File downloads

In browsers such as Safari and SeaMonkey, the option key can be used to download a file. Pressing down the option key when hitting return in the address bar causes the URL-specified file to be downloaded. Also, pressing the option key when clicking a hyperlink causes the link target to be downloaded. Besides the option key methods, other ways of downloading includes right-clicking a hyperlink to bring up a context menu, then selecting the appropriate download command, or pasting a URL directly into Safari's Downloads window.


Some applications make unique uses out of the option key:

  • Terminal (including at least version 1.4.6 - no longer true as of 2.0.1, Cmd-L/R works.) - Option-L/R arrows navigates between open Terminal windows in a loop. Usually, programs use Cmd-` and Cmd-Shift-`, which are also supported for Terminal.
  • Scroll bar (including at least OS X 10.3.x) - Option-clicking a scroll bar arrow can cause the view to jump to the next page instead of moving by a few lines. Option-clicking in the scroll bar can cause the view to jump to that position instead of jumping to the next page. This behavior can be reversed in System Preferences: Appearance.
  • Startup Disk - Holding the Option Key at boot time activates a boot manager built in to the firmware, where the user may choose from which drive/partition to boot the computer from, including Mac OS and Mac OS X partitions or drives on PowerPC-based Macs, and Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows partitions or drives on Intel-based Macs (running Mac OS X 10.4.6 and later with Boot Camp from Apple Inc. installed). The built in bootloader can also boot other operating systems such as Linux, however these are labeled as "Windows" in the bootloader.

See also

Other modifier keys:

External links

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