Last thoughts on modifier keys

When I wrote the post about ordering Mac modifier keys a few days ago, I was thinking primarily about the proper order of the symbols when writing about a keyboard shortcut, like ⌃⌥⌘P.1. I mentioned parenthetically that this order isn’t always observed when people speak about keyboard shortcuts or when they write the names of the keys out fully, as in “Command-Shift-3 takes a screenshot.”

Jason Snell, in both a post at Six Colors and in conversation with John Siracusa on the lastest episode of Upgrade, took a stand against Apple’s ordering:2

Command is the commander! Command is the monarch of all keys! Command always comes first, in my book.

Siracusa agreed, and so do I. The ⌘ key is, and has always been, the key that signals a keyboard shortcut. While other modifier keys are sometimes used without ⌘—in cursor control and text selection, for example—I can’t think of any Apple applications that don’t use ⌘ to signal a keyboard shortcut for a menu item. And that primacy in shortcuts to menu items is, I think, why Apple puts it last rather than first.

Keyboard shortcuts are always presented right-justified along the right edge of the menu. The most common shortcuts are just ⌘ and a letter, like ⌘N to start a new document, for example. It’s typically the variations on the basic command that get additional modifier keys, like ⌥⌘N to start a new project. If that were presented in a menu as ⌘⌥N, the menu would look wrong because the ⌘ symbols wouldn’t line up.

Here’s the File menu in Safari:

Safari File menu

There are two different New commands and three different Close commands. This, in Apple’s opinion (and mine), wouldn’t be right:

Altered Safari File menu

It’s not just having the ⌘ symbols aligned. The additional modifier symbols go in front because ⌘ is king and must sit next to the N or the W. The importance of the modifier decreases as you move away from the letter.

It should go without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—that the letter (or number or whatever) key is the most important because nothing happens until it’s pressed.

Having said all this, and despite agreeing with Apple’s symbol ordering, my ear for shortcut ordering works just like Jason’s and John’s. The main reason I use keyboard shortcut symbols in my posts instead of words is that I can read ⌥⇧⌘W and not be bothered because I don’t “hear” it as I read the symbols. “Option-Shift-Command-W,” on the other hand, gets sounded out in my head, and it sounds wrong.

I suspect that’s why Apple’s own documentation sometimes gets the order wrong when the modifiers get written out as words. In speaking out the keys, “Command” is natural to put first because it announces that what’s coming is a keyboard shortcut.

  1. Which happens to be the shortcut I use for previewing a blog post locally before publishing it. 

  2. In the original post, I said I didn’t know where the order was documented. A few people pointed me to both the Human Interface Guidelines and the Style Guide, where Apple gives the proper order explicitly.