I have a friend who recently migrated from Windows to OS X. He's heavy keyboard user but is having a tough time on Mac. That's primarily because many important keys have no keyboard symbols on them. This holds true for the wireless keyboard and Macbooks.

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Consider the following menu items:

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These commands make use of Option and Shift keys but these symbols are not present on the keyboard. IMO, this is a significant usability problem as the user has to memorize all these symbols before using them effectively.

  1. I understand that everything comes with a learning curve, but is this really necessary here?
  2. Is there a justified reasoning for it?
  3. Is this a trade-off between aesthetics and usability?

Edit: Some International keyboards have symbols, but they don't have key names. Strange!

closed as primarily opinion-based by DA01, JohnGB Oct 5 '15 at 9:11

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 2
    They do have them on international keyboards. See: [1]: i.stack.imgur.com/D8g8v.jpg [2]: i.stack.imgur.com/obisv.jpg [3]: i.stack.imgur.com/k7QyU.jpg – Bowen Aug 28 '15 at 18:34
  • And now they're missing key names! What's up with Apple!? – Adit Gupta Aug 28 '15 at 18:36
  • 1
    I got the up-arrow/shift figured out, but I still have to guess on if that weird squiggle is 'ctrl' or 'alt'/'option'. Damn you Apple! Without asking Apple directly, I think it comes down to their design aesthetics -- Jony Ive just didn't like the way it looked on the keyboard. – Evil Closet Monkey Aug 28 '15 at 21:47
  • @Bowen They do, except for ⌃ or ^ on the Ctrl keys. – Crissov Aug 29 '15 at 13:46
  • They don't have it in US keyboards. And International keyboards don't have key names which are present in US keyboards. Does not make sense IMO. – Adit Gupta Aug 29 '15 at 13:57
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes, it’s a mess and there’s no easy way out.

The international standard ISO/IEC 9995-7 specifies several symbols for keyboard labels. Most of them have been added to Unicode and exist in at least one supplied font on most modern operating systems, by the way. They are known to a varying, mostly limited degree. Power users, who are the primary target group for keyboard shortcuts, will probably know the arrow styles that stand in for ⇧ shift, ⇥ tab and ↩ return, for instance.

Despite using a non-standard layout in many locales, Apple actually follows the standard better than many PC manufacturers and they used to be even closer to it, but changed a few years ago for purely stylistic reasons, e.g. backspace (, now ) and arrow keys ( or now etc.). Apple also removed its symbol from the ‘cmd’ key and put the standard “place of interest sign” (Unicode) there, which then was also introduced to on-screen menus.

It may make sense to omit the common abbreviated English terms from key tops in international hardware, but I don’t see why Apple would omit the symbols on the US version, except for aesthetic reasons. Note that, for example, ‘Ctrl’ (for ’control’) is traditionally ‘Strg’ (for ‘Steuerung’) on German IBM keyboards. Since ISO actually associates a meaning to the vertical and horizontal position of a partial key label (“levels” and “groups”), Apple’s alphabetic plus symbol variants, e.g. “alt ⌥” and “cmd ⌘” may be considered non-standard or even confusing, though, but so is centering the letters.

OS X may be able to identify the exact model of a connected or integrated hardware keyboard, but it doesn’t know exactly which labels are printed onto its key tops. If it did, it could automatically adapt keyboard shortcuts shown in menus on the screen, but since it does not, it could either decide by locale or adopt a unified style. With the latter option, which I think Apple chose, using symbols saves some precious screen real estate, but it requires author training, because alt or option is input easier than on every keyboard in the world. Apple would be well-advised to stream-line their localized key labels and finally stay with it at least for a decade or two, i.e. US layouts should get symbols and international ones should get on Ctrl.

Related problem

What‘s also bad, is shifted symbols used in shortcuts. If, for instance, the opening square bracket [ or apostrophe ' is used in a shortcut, they are easily accessed on a US keyboard, but on a German layout, the corresponding keys would bear Ü and # labels, respectively, and one would have to press Alt+5 on Mac or AltGr+8 on Windows and Shift+#, respectively, to print the characters – so what’s the equivalent shortcut, especially if it already involved the shift or alt key?

Overview of select ISO and other common (proprietary) key labels

  • shift = level 2 select
  • shift lock
  • level 2 lock
  • caps lock – affects letters only
  • num(eric) lock
  • alternate graphics (AltGr) = level 3 select
  • level 3 lock
  • group select
  • group lock
  • scroll lock
  • (general) lock – needs plain-text label


  • or control (Ctrl)

  • option
  • alt(ernate)
  • command (Cmd)
  • compose (Cmp)


  • or or return

  • enter
  • or ins(ert)
  • del(ete)
  • or backspace
  • clear input
  • esc(ape)
  • pause
  • break


  • or tab(ulator)

  • or or left (4)
  • or or right (6)
  • or or up (8)
  • or or down (2)
  • or top-right (9)
  • or bottom-left (1)
  • or top-left (7)
  • or bottom-right (3)
  • home
  • end
  • page up (PgUp)
  • page down (PgDn)

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