What Do the Mac Keyboard Symbols Actually Mean?

By Justin Pot on January 27th, 2017

macos-keyboard-symbols

Macs are supposed to be intuitive, but a few things are downright hidden from users. For example: in the menu bar, the keyboard shortcuts for various actions are laid out using somewhat confusing symbols.

What the Arrow, Squiggly, and Other Symbols Mean

You might know that “⌘” corresponds to the Command key, since it actually appears on the keyboard key. But what’s the difference between “⌃” and “⇧,” both basically up arrows? And what the heck is “⌥” supposed to be?

symbols-cryptic-why

If you’re trying to learn Mac keyboard shortcuts, this is a problem, so here’s a quick reference. To start, here are the main modifier keys, which you’re likely to see most often:

  • ⌘ means Command
  • ⌥ means Option (also called “Alt”)
  • ⌃ means Control
  • ⇧ means Shift

Memorizing these four symbols should be enough for you to learn the vast majority of keyboard shortcuts. It’s particularly important that you remember that “Shift” is the fleshed-out arrow, and “Control” is the simpler shape. At least, those are the two that trip me up most often.

There are a few more symbols that macOS uses to represent keys, which are also worth learning. Here’s a quick list:

  • ⌫ means Delete (called Backspace on Windows keyboards)
  • ⌦ means Forward Delete (called Delete on Windows keyboards)
  • ⏎ means Return (also called “Enter”)
  • ⎋ means Escape
  • ⇥ means Tab right
  • ⇤ means Tab left
  • ⇪ means Caps lock
  • ⏏ means Eject

There are also a few symbols commonly used to refer to the navigation keys. The first four, simple arrows, are intuitive enough:

  • ↑ means Up
  • ↓ means Down
  • ← means Left
  • → means Right

But there are four more such symbols, also arrows but used to mean different things entirely:

  • ⇞ means Page Up
  • ⇟ means Page Down
  • ↖︎ means Top (called Home on Windows computers)
  • ↘︎ means End

If you learn these symbols, you should be able to figure out basically any keyboard shortcut pointed out in the menu bar, or anywhere else online.

What Aren’t These Stupid Symbols on my Keyboard?

You may be wondering: why does Apple use these symbols in the operating system, and not on the physical keyboard? The answer: they used to put these symbols on keyboards everywhere, and still do in many parts of the world. For example, here’s the keyboard of my coworker Harry Guinness, who lives in Ireland:

irish-keyboard

As you can see, the “⌥” and “⇧” symbols are on the keyboard, replacing the words “Option” and “Shift” entirely. Other countries use these symbols to varying extents. Why this isn’t more standardized, we can’t say, but it would be nice if Apple put symbols used by the operating system on their physical keyboards everywhere. The current situation isn’t exactly user-friendly.

Justin Pot is a staff writer for How-To Geek, and a technology enthusiast who lives in Hillsboro, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, if you want. You don't have to.

  • Published 01/27/17
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