How to use Mac menus from the keyboard

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help menu shortcut
Help!
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

There’s nothing a Mac nerd likes more than using keyboard shortcuts. Actually, there’s one thing — telling people about Mac keyboard shortcuts. Either way, you’re going to love this tip, which lets you access the menu bar menus of any and all Mac apps, using just the keyboard.

Hit the magic key combo, and you can quickly type to find any menu command by name.

Hacking the Mac help menu

This trick uses the Mac help menu to do its magic.
This trick uses the help menu to do its magic.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Before you do anything else, mouse up to your Mac menu bar and click on Help. You’ll see a search box. You’ll also see the the text cursor is already in that search box, ready for you to type in a search term.

This search box is the key to using Mac menus from the keyboard. The search box has two uses. One is to look up subjects in the Mac’s various help files. But you can also type in the box to search for available menu items. Type “pr,” for example, and you’ll see all menu items that begin with “pr” — things like Print and so on.

Mouse over the search results for extra details.
Mouse over the search results for extra details.
Photo: Cult of Mac

And there’s more. If you mouse over a particular search result in the list, its menu will open up, and the searched-for function will be selected. And if that wasn’t enough for you, there’s also a big arrow pointing at the menu item. The arrow even moves!

This fantastic trick means you can find any command, in any menu or submenu, without knowing where it is. This is useful for learning where commands are hidden in the Mac’s complex menu systems, but it can also be used to control everything from the keyboard.

Use the help menu from the keyboard

The help menu is great, but it’s even greater when used with the keyboard. First, you can activate the menu using the ⇧⌘/ keyboard shortcut. (This can also be thought of as ⌘?, which makes it easier to remember.) Type that combo, and the menu opens up, ready to accept your typed search term.

Then, in the list of search results, you can use the up and down arrow keys to navigate that list. Finally, you can hit Return to execute that menu command, as if you had clicked on it. All this means that you can quickly execute any menu command, straight from the keyboard.

Examples

Type P to print.
Type P to print.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Now, you undoubtedly already know that the ⌘P keyboard shortcut will print whatever you’re working on. But if you didn’t, you could type ⌘?, then type p, and see the list of available menu commands.

How about a more complex example?

Complex enough?
Complex enough?
Photo: Cult of Mac

Say you’re in an app, and you know the command you’re looking for — you just don’t know where it is. In Logic Pro X, for example, perhaps you want the Split command. This splits a clip in two, for editing purposes. Instead of searching through the menus for Split, just hit ⌘?, and type “split.” You’ll see something like the screenshot above. You can now simply use the arrow keys to select the Split command you want (there are a few), and hit return to execute it.

You’ll also notice that the actual keyboard shortcuts for the commands are listed next to the menu items. For Split, it’s ⌘T. (Remember that for next time.)

This excellent feature has been in the Mac’s help menu for years now, so maybe you already know about it. If not, then you’re going to love it.