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The Mac keyboards have historically rarely spelled out keys such as : command, control and option. Instead, symbols (i.e. ⌘, ⌥) are printed on keyboards and used throughout the system software. Can we use these symbols on Stack Overflow without fear of having them replaced by their spelled out versions?

It is much more obvious to read + N for these developers/users than Command + N.

Just wanted to understand the community's stance on this before writing more questions, answers and edits.

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As an aside: though I dislike it (quite a lot) when others edit my posts to add <kbd>, even Jeff does that. So I guess it's officially allowed. ;-) –  Arjan Dec 7 '11 at 12:17

7 Answers 7

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I would never change other people's posts. But when looking for a standard then I'd say simply use the names, separated by a plus-character. Like Control+C, Command+Tab, Shift+Option+Space, Option+Escape. For semantics, and for cases such as Command++, one could add <kbd>.

This seems to works consistently in most cases:

  1. Not all keyboards actually show all symbols. Like Option might not be labelled ⌥. Delete might be the word delete or a left-pointing arrow on the keyboard, but is ⌫ in the menus. Shift might be ⇧ or shift. It might not be clear what ⌥ and ⌫ are referring to here:


  2. Not all keys have symbols to start with. Like I've never seen the Control key to show the ⌃ that is used in the menus. And the Escape key is never labeled ⎋, and the spacebar never ␣.

  3. It's hard to use all symbols perfectly right. Like ⌃ is really the up arrowhead, not the ^ circumflex one gets when pressing Shift-6 on many keyboards. And would one really want to use ⇧ instead of Shift too?

  4. Anyone who does not know what symbol goes with which key, can surely Google it given its name. It's hard to do it the other way around.

  5. Non-Apple devices might not show the symbols correctly. (Like a stock Google Nexus S does not.)

  6. I don't know how screen readers pronounce the symbols. I also don't know if they prefer Ctrl over Control. The latter seems to be the safest choice. Also, using Control+C or Command+N rather than Control-C or Command-N might work better. (On a Mac, using say "⌥+N or Option+N" works better than say "⌥-N or Option-N". Also, say recognizes ⌥ and ⌘, but not ⌃ nor ⇧. But, I've no idea what a screen reader uses, nor what non-Mac screen readers understand.

  7. I dislike the way <kbd> is rendered on these sites, but I can imagine that HTML-aware screen readers might actually like it. Also, Command++ looks ridiculous, so Command++ helps if one does not want Command+Plus.

    As an aside, I'd say that <kbd>Command+C</kbd>, or wrapping into an additional <kbd> like in <kbd> <kbd>Command</kbd>+<kbd>C</kbd> </kbd>, is semantically better than <kbd>Command</kbd>+<kbd>C</kbd>. But that looks wrong with the keyboard-like rendering on these sites. If it would render differently, then one could drop the separator plus-character, like Press Command + to zoom is okay to me, while Press Command + to zoom is not. (Screen capture.) I guess it's too late to change that.

  8. Using a plus-character rather than a hyphen, ensures key combinations are not wrapped at the end of a line.

  9. Apple has changed their keyboards a lot. Remember the Command key being referred to as the Apple key, given its symbol on old keyboards? My August 2006 MacBook still has that Apple key, but not so much for later models. And Apple sells many different keyboards, some having just the labels, others having just the symbols. (True, even the labels differ, like ctrl versus control, and cmd versus command.)

  10. Folks don't even know why symbols like ⌥ and ⌘ are used.

  11. Not all symbols are easily typed, so one cannot expect everyone to use those. (Again, things will be different for the many keyboard layouts that are used. Heck, even the backtick is hard to type on some keyboards!)

When nitpicking, for return use the word "Return". (Enter is actually a different key.)

And whatever you do: don't use "Alt" to refer to the Option key. True, that text is on the keyboard, but only relevant when using it to control non-Mac software, like a Remote Desktop session to a Windows machine! Mac OS does not use Alt.

But Apple has a zillion different keyboards, so I might be wrong!

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not to mention , for Esc, which always trips me up because it looks like a tilted power button –  Lorem Ipsum Dec 7 '11 at 0:04
For "Control", I remember seeing ⌤ (Up arrowhead between two horizontal bars U+2324) in previous MacOS versions, but in Lion they use ⌃ (Up arrowhead U+2303). I personally liked ⌤ better. –  Qwerty Bob Dec 7 '11 at 0:06
@Qwerty, odd. That ⌤ is Enter on my keyboard. (And always has been, as long as I remember. It used to be a separate key; nowadays it's Fn+Return on my Macs. Also FileFormat.info mentions that.) Maybe you mapped that Enter key (to the right of the right-side Command) to be Control too? –  Arjan Dec 7 '11 at 0:16
Right, @yoda! And many arrow keys. –  Arjan Dec 7 '11 at 0:17
I guess I'm getting old and senile already. I'm imagining things incorrectly from my past. I can't find any reference text/image that would support my claim. –  Qwerty Bob Dec 7 '11 at 0:25

This is just my preference, but if you're using the <kbd></kbd> syntax, I would prefer the symbol. If you're writing it out for prose (ie: the text "key" will be included), I would prefer the key name.

For when to choose which, I think there are situations that warrant both styles.

The only other issue is that you have to be careful about how you input some of the symbol keys. The way you have done it here is correct, but as an example there are certain unicode characters that render on macs as the command key, but not on other operating systems.

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Your last paragraph is interesting, wouldn't they be displayed correctly (client font-permitting) regardless whether they were unicode characters inserted directly or escaped HTML entities (&#nnnn;) so long as the webpage properly identifiers its encoding? –  Qwerty Bob Dec 7 '11 at 3:15
As an aside: the ⌘ symbol from the question also doesn't render in the latest Chrome on the latest Android on a Nexus... And without <kbd> it's even worse, as then there's not even a "box" indicating a missing character... –  Arjan Sep 14 '12 at 19:55

Some people, myself included, put both the name and the symbol into one <kbd> element.

Of course, this comes with the downside of there being two ways to arrange them (e.g. between Command ⌘ and ⌘ Command), which leads to inconsistency in multiple different answers with them; see Hidden Features of Xcode for examples.

I place the symbol after the name because having it before just seems awkward for a shortcut key: Command ⌘

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Now that I mention it, I think I want to edit some of those answers so the order is consistent. Wonder if I should... –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Dec 7 '11 at 3:07
Nice. But when nitpicking then I feel this is redundant information and only looks right when <kbd> is supported. For example, it might look slightly odd in a RSS reader: what does Press Command ⌘ + N mean? (Assuming the usage of a + there; Press Command ⌘ N is much worse.) Still then, screen readers might say Command Command plus C for <kbd>Command ⌘</kbd> + <kbd>C</kbd>? And would you do the same for Return, the arrow keys, the space bar, ...? –  Arjan Dec 7 '11 at 10:18

I kept thinking about this throughout the day and came up with another potential answer; one that could, perhaps, please most. What do you think of using both forms?

When I do ⌘N (Command+N), a new document window appears.

This uses Apple's format as shown in the menus themselves : ⌘N
And it also uses the other known format : <modifier> + key

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say "When I do ⌘N (Command+N), a new document window appears." ;-) (Still, I like it, except for the ugly <kbd> but that is just my personal vendetta!) –  Arjan Dec 6 '11 at 23:39
This doesn't seem like both forms according to your question since I only see the symbol. I don't think it's a good idea to place two keys in a single <kbd> element either because of the way it's styled. It makes it look like ⌘N is a single key, which it isn't. –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Dec 7 '11 at 3:11
@BoltClock, you're right about the rendering issue. However, I feel that the keyboard-like rendering is actually the culprit. I just learned that <kbd>Yes</kbd> is supposed to be user input, but actual keys need an extra <kbd> wrapper. Like: press <kbd><kbd>Shift</kbd>+<kbd>A</kbd></kbd>. True, that looks even worse on these sites... –  Arjan Dec 7 '11 at 11:59

I like the symbols but they're impossible to search for. Searchability is important; use the names.

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Well, you wouldn't be able to search for just "N" either. So hopefully there would be other keywords from the context to draw from such as : "modifier keys", "shortcut keys", "keyboard shortcut", etc. I'd argue that "Control" or "Command" aren't a very good keywords to search by as its too vague a word. –  Qwerty Bob Dec 6 '11 at 23:22
@Qwerty, Google needs some more love from you! It's perfectly capable of telling you what Command-Option-Shift-Q is used for ;-) –  Arjan Dec 6 '11 at 23:36
@Arjan : Surely, Google doesn't give you what you want if you just search "command"... but you immediately get more related results if you use something like "keyboard shortcuts". That was my point. –  Qwerty Bob Dec 6 '11 at 23:54
True, @Qwerty, but searching for what is Command-Option-Shift-Q used for does yield the expected results, while what is ⌘⌥⇧q used for does not. It's not only about searching, but also indexing. –  Arjan Dec 7 '11 at 0:10

I think that if you are posting something Mac-specific (as those keys are), you would be best to post them in a way that Mac users will be most comfortable. I think using the symbols would be that.

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This. I don't think a Mac aficionado will edit out . –  Pëkka Dec 6 '11 at 19:43

Sorry that should be Command + EN

See how that makes little sense?

Whatever is universally known should be acceptable by the community.

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