A Mac keyboard's "Return" key with a red question mark in front of it.

On a Mac extended keyboard, there’s a “Return” and an “Enter” key. On most PC keyboards, there are two “Enter” keys, but some say “Return” instead. What’s going on here? We look at the history behind the keys.

The Historical Difference Between Enter and Return

To understand the difference between Return and Enter, we’ll need to go back to their origins.

The Return key comes from typewriters. On an electric typewriter (such as the IBM Selectric series), pressing the Return key executes a “carriage return,” which moves the carriage (the roller assembly holding the paper you’re typing on) back to the start of a line. It also rotates the roller so the paper advances down a line or two at the same time (called a “line feed”). It’s how you begin typing on a new line.

The "Return" key on an IBM Selectric typewriter.
The Return key on an IBM Selectric typewriter. IBM

The Enter key originates from early video screen computer terminals, when the need arose to differentiate between adding a carriage return within a form field and submitting the information itself. “Enter” in this case means to send data into the computer after typing a value. Enter also derives somewhat from computer numeric keypads, which come from a lineage of adding machines and data entry devices. In this context, it’s often used as an equivalent to the equal sign (“=”) or Total key on an adding machine, which keeps a running total of values entered.

RELATED: Where Did the Numeric Keypads on PC Keyboards Come From?

Mac and PC Do Things Differently

On a standard Windows PC keyboard with a numeric keypad, you’ll find two Enter keys: One just above the right Shift key, and one in the far lower-right corner of the keyboard as part of the numeric keypad. This design emerged on the PC platform with the 101-key “Model M” keyboard back in 1984.

On a Windows PC, both of these keys return the same internal ID code (“13” for Carriage Return), which means that most programs don’t differentiate between them. Internally, however, they return different location codes, which means a properly coded program can tell the difference if it wants to.

Some Microsoft Office apps and a variety of Adobe apps treat the two Enter keys differently depending on context. In general, the Enter in the main section of the keyboard sends a Carriage Return (new line), and the Enter on the numeric keypad is used for submitting data in an entry, similar to clicking an “OK” button. But that can easily change based on the software context.

On a Mac, you’ll see a Return key in the main alphanumeric section of the keyboard and an Enter key in the numeric keypad section of extended keyboards. This arrangement first appeared on the Apple Lisa keyboard in 1983 and carried over to the Mac Numeric Keypad in 1984 and the Mac Plus extended keyboard in 1986.

The "Return" and "Enter" keys on a Mac keyboard.

On a Mac, the Return and Enter keys have two different ASCII codes (36 and 76), and as with the PC, many apps consider them the same key, but some apps treat them differently. If your keyboard doesn’t have a numeric keypad, the Return key might also say “Enter” on it. To make your Return key act like Enter, press Fn+Return.

So we’re left with an unsatisfying conclusion. Enter and Return are non-identical twins of each other, each with different functions based on different contexts. They are two different keys, and yet they often do the same thing. Ultimately, their value comes from their different locations on the keyboard—although, if you think about it, when has the standard keyboard layout ever really made sense?

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Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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