Keyboard shortcuts in Windows appear to follow some sort of convention based on the modifier key, but I can't figure out precisely what it is. Here is my current best guess:

  • Ctrl-* often does a program-specific task.
  • Alt-* often focuses context menus.
  • Win-* often focuses or performs tasks on Windows components.
  • Fn-* often performs hardware-specific tasks.
  • The behavior of keystrokes with multiple modifiers does not follow a paradigm.
  • The behavior of Shift as a modifier does not follow a paradigm.

Many prominent counterexamples immediately come to mind. (Why isn't the task manager Win+***? If Alt is for context menus, then why doesn't Shift-F10 use the Alt modifier? Why does Alt+F4 close windows? Why does Win+X open a context menu if Alt is supposed to control that?)

I have no clue what the list might look like for OSX.

What are the actual conventions for Windows and OSX keyboard shortcuts?


3 Answers 3


On Windows,

  • Ctrl is primarily used for shortcuts to menu commands.
  • Alt is used for access keys in menus and dialogs. While these are sometimes considered as shortcuts, Microsoft sees this more as an accessibility feature.
  • Windows Key is used for system-wide functions.
  • Function keys can also be used for shortcuts, and there are a few standard Function keys (F1 for Help, F2 for Find etc.)

However, there are many exceptions to these rules, mostly for historical reasons. For example, many system-wide shortcuts were defined before the Windows key was introduced.

See also the Windows User Experience Interaction Guidelines

On OS X,

  • Command is primarily used for shortcuts to menu commands
  • Option (Alt) is used primarily to enter alternate characters. Therefore, this key is normally not used for shortcuts.
  • Control is traditionally used for Unix control characters or shortcuts based on these (e.g. Ctrl+A / Ctrl+E for beginning/end of line). When not used for this purpose, applications often use them for additional menu shortcuts (e.g. for less frequently used commands)
  • Function keys are by default used for system commands (screen brightness, Exposé, audio). Fn + Function key can be used for application specific shortcuts. (There is a system-wide option to toggle that). Furthermore, function keys are smaller than regular keys on Apple keyboards. All this makes function keys less suitable for application shortcuts than on Windows. You see it mostly used in cross-platform applications that want to support the same shortcuts on both platforms.

On Both platforms, these can be combined with additional modifier keys to create more shortcuts. Designers often try to make these easy to remember by using them for variations of the modifier-less shortcuts, for example:

  • Ctrl/Command + Shift + C for "Paste Special" (as variant of Ctrl/Command + C for "Paste")
  • Shift + F3 resp. Command + Shift + F for "Find backwards" (based on F3 resp. Command + F for "Find")

Typically, these additional modifier keys are used in the following order of preference:

  1. Shift
  2. Alt/Option
  3. Control (Mac only)

Windows is more focused on controling the bar, and shortcuts from the start menu :

  • Win + number will make you come back to this task

  • Win + E will make the Explorer file open you can access clicking on Start then on Computer

Even if you can open task manager from right clicking on the windows bar, it's not the very first design.

Since Alt controls menus, it's not unbelivable of been able to have FileClose shortcut.

The behaviour of Shift would be more associated with a gesture control as Ctrl :

  • Shift + F10 is doing a mouse right click (or oppening menu in without mouse mode)

  • Shift + make you go the previous item in tabulation navigation

All this example because I am not sure you have totally cover each key usage and then you cannot find the design behind.


There are a couple of things to bear in mind here.

Keyboard shortcuts under Windows are often based on much older MSDOS commands and so don't always follow modern conventions.

And, for shortcuts within programs, they are defined by the developer and tailored to the perceived needs of their user and so do not always follow existing paradigms (plus there are always bad developers who just put things where there's room on the keyboard rather than thinking about the use cases) - In other words, there are conventions but they are not hard rules and they are often broken or bent by the requirements of the software and user.

Adding to your list of existing patterns, [ctrl]+[shift]+[key] usually completes the reverse or alternative of [ctrl]+[key] - think 'undo'/'redo' or 'save'/'save as'.

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