Earlier this evening, Merlin tweeted out some advice we should all heed:

Even though I’ve been using a Mac for 32 years (albeit with an 8-year Linux hiatus) there were a few keyboard shortcuts in there I didn’t know about. And, just as important, several that I once knew but had fallen out of the habit of using.

But one of my favorites—and a big convenience when writing code or prose—isn’t on the Mac keyboard shortcut page. I wonder if the folks at Apple have forgotten it.

It has to do with finding text in a document. You know about ⌘F to specify a Find. That usually brings up a window or other control into which you can type (or paste) the text you’re going to be searching for. Often, there are options for controlling how the search will be performed and for replacement text. Here’s the Find window from BBEdit,

BBEdit Find window

here’s the Find window from Pages,

Pages Find window

and here’s TextEdit, which pops up a little Find section in the main window below the ruler,

TextEdit with Find section

You probably also know about ⌘G, which is usually given the menu name Find Next. It repeats the last Find command, allowing you to step through all the occurrences of that text in the document. There are usually other ways to cycle through all the found instances—Pages and TextEdit have arrow buttons you can click on—but ⌘G is the traditional way.1

A common situation, especially when looking through long documents or source code files, is to see a particular string of text and want to find other instances of it. You may, for example, see the definition of a function and want to search out where that function gets called later in the code. One way to do that would be to select the function name, copy it, ⌘F to bring up the text entry field, paste, and then ⌘G your way through the rest of the document.2 But the copy/⌘F/paste dance is a little clumsy.

Which is where ⌘E, which is typically given a menu name like Use Selection for Find, comes in.

BBEdit Search menu

Select the text you want to search for and hit ⌘E. That turns the selection into the search text, and you can go straight to ⌘G to walk through all the other occurrences.

I use ⌘E all the time when searching through code for function and variable names, as in the example above. It also works in Safari, Chrome, Preview, and PDF Expert, so I do similar quick searching on words I come across as I read news articles, blogs, reports, papers, etc.

⌘E works in other well-behaved applications, too, so you should give it a try. Note that “well-behaved applications” excludes MS Word. In Word, ⌘E centers the paragraph of text containing the selection. Of course.

Update Nov 19, 2017 8:40 AM
A couple of things I forgot to include:

First, ⌘E in the Finder has, somewhat ironically, no relationship to finding. It ejects or unmounts the selected disk, assuming there is a selected disk. This shortcut is listed on Apple’s Mac shortcut page (which is why I was going to mention it), and a couple of people reminded me of it after the post was published. I guess I forgot about it because it’s a command I never use; I eject by right-clicking and selecting Eject from the menu that pops up.

Second, editors and word processors on iOS have not inherited this useful shortcut from the Mac. There is, of course, no ⌘ key on the software keyboard, but many of the traditional Mac shortcuts that use ⌘, ⌥, and ⇧ for moving the cursor and selecting text do work on iOS when you use an external keyboard. ⌘F and ⌘G (and its backward cousin, ⇧⌘G) often work in iOS, too, but ⌘E didn’t make the cut. Too bad.

Keyboard shortcuts in iOS Notes

  1. I believe ⌘G was originally used as the shortcut for Go To Page… in MacWrite, but it’s been Find Next for ages. 

  2. Yes, source code editors in general, and BBEdit in particular, have other ways to find all the instances of a string of text, and those ways may be more appropriate in some situations. But stepping your way through each instance in turn is often the best way to see the string in full context.