How to manipulate iOS text using the keyboard

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manipulate text
Keep your hands on the keyboard with these iOS text-wrangling tips.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Because iOS is a variant of macOS, it has a lot in common with the Mac. One of the things that iOS shares with the Mac is the keyboard. Not the on-screen keyboard, but the real, physical, clackety-buttoned keyboard. Thanks to its OS X heritage, the iPad (and iPhone) can use all the same keyboard tricks to manipulate text that Mac users have been enjoying for years.

It even carries some, but not all, of the shortcuts over from the ancient text editor Emacs. What? Don’t worry, it’s not too dorky.

Manipulate text on iPad with these Mac shortcuts

Tapping the screen is old school. The cool kids are all about keyboard control.
Tapping the screen is old school. The cool kids are all about keyboard control.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Instead of reaching up to tap the screen when you need to move the cursor (aka. text-insertion point) or select some text, try these legacy Mac shortcuts instead. Some you will already know, some will be new to you, especially in the Emacs section.

  • ⌘-arrow key — go to start/end of line (←→), or to the beginning or end of the entire document (↑↓)
  • ⌥-arrow key — move left or right one word at a time, or up/down one paragraph at a time
  • ⌘A — Select all
  • ⇧⌥-arrow key — select/deselect a whole word at a time (←→), or whole paragraph at a time (↑↓)
  • ⇧⌘-arrow key — Select all text from cursor position to end/beginning of current line (←→), or beginning/end of document (↑↓)
  • ⌥-backspace — delete word before cursor

Emacs text shortcuts that work on iOS

Those were the standard Mac shortcuts, and should work just about anywhere you can type text on the iPad or Mac, or on the iPhone. But what you may not know are these ancient Emacs shortcuts, relics from a text editor born way back in 1976.

  • ⌃K — Delete everything after curse to the end of the line
  • ⌃A — Move cursor to beginning of line
  • ⌃E — Move cursor to end of line
  • ⌃J — New line, like hitting return
  • ⌃H — Backspace
  • ⌃F — Move one character forward
  • ⌃B — Move one character back

If you’re using a Mac, there are a lot more of these Emacs control-key shortcuts — only a subset exists on the iPad. There is no way to transpose the letters to either side of the cursor (⌃T) on the iPad, for example. The biggest advantage of the Emacs-style shortcuts is that they use the actual letter keys instead of the arrow keys, so a touch typist can keep their fingers on the home keys.

Both sets of shortcuts work all the time, so you can pick whichever is comfortable for you. And if you are used to using these shortcuts on a Mac, try hooking up a keyboard to your iPad and let your muscle-memory take care of things for you.