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Table of Contents

Contextual Menus on the Mac

To open most Mac menus, you click a word or icon. Contextual menus (also called “shortcut” or “Control-click” menus) are different. You can’t see anything special before you invoke them.

Opening a Contextual Menu

To invoke a contextual menu in the traditional way, hold down the Control key and click the screen in a particular spot, such as on an icon . You’ll see this maneuver described as “Control-clicking.”

① 	Control- or right-click a Finder icon to display a contextual menu containing a collection of handy Finder commands.

① Control- or right-click a Finder icon to display a contextual menu containing a collection of handy Finder commands.

Why Control-click?

Back in the days of the earliest Macintosh computers, mice had only one button. If contextual menus were to exist at all, there needed to be some way to signal that a click should bring up a special menu. Given the technology at the time, modifying the click with the Control key seemed reasonable—at least to some people. Decades later, Control-clicking still works. But…

The Right-click Conundrum

For many years now, third-party mice have offered two buttons. And, the modern Apple mouse may look like it has just one button, but under its glossy surface it has special touch sensors that register where your fingers are. Thus, you can issue a normal click if you press the left side and a “Control-click” if you press the right side.

This leaves tech writers in a quandary. Should they write “Control-click,” thus giving a directive that everyone can follow—even those few people who still have one-button mice and the others who didn’t realize their mouse has left- and right-click capabilities? And what about those who use trackpads, which also have left-click and right-click capabilities hidden beneath the surface?

On the other hand, by writing “right-click,” a tech writer might encourage readers to learn that they have a whole ‘nother button that could be put to use, not only for right-clicking, but for invoking fancy keyboard shortcuts.

Also, right-clicking is common in Unix and Windows, so readers who are familiar with those platforms should know what right-click means.

Configuring Your Mouse or Trackpad for Contextual Menus

  1. Open System Preferences.
  2. Open the Mouse or Trackpad pane, depending on which device you have. (If you use a non-Apple pointing device, these instructions won’t work; look for similar controls in a special pane for your device.)
  3. Click the Point & Click button.
  4. Select the “Secondary click” checkbox and choose an option from the associated pop-up menu (notice that the presence of a menu is signaled by a tiny triangle at the right).

Your change goes into effect immediately. You may need to experiment to find the right setting for you.

A Twist

Apple has added a twist to any discussion of contextual menus by introducing little angle brackets that appear in the interface only when you hover with the pointer over a certain location . Other times, a little downward-pointing triangle appears to indicate that a contextual menu will appear if you click.

② 	You can open a menu from the iTunes LCD panel while a song is playing. In this example from iTunes 11, if you Control-click in the same location, you'll get a different menu.

② You can open a menu from the iTunes LCD panel while a song is playing. In this example from iTunes 11, if you Control-click in the same location, you’ll get a different menu.

Click one of these and a menu appears. It may look a little different from a classic contextual menu—and it may be different from what you’d get if you Control-clicked in that same location—but the commands in this menu are just as “contextual” to the area where you clicked, and you can choose items from it just like any other menu.

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“Dock icons have contextual menus. To open one, click and hold briefly on the icon, without the Control key.”

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