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On Windows, the BackSpace key deletes a letter, and on the Mac, the delete key does the same.

On Windows, Ctr + BS deletes a word instead, and on the Mac, Option + Delete does it.

Why doesn't it delete a word by default? To me, setting deleting a letter as the default behavior doesn't seem to be a good design.

You would press the delete key when either (a) you misspelled a word or (b) you want to replace a word with another.

In the scenario (b), it's obvious that deleting a word is more convenient. If it deletes a single letter at once, you have to press the key multiple times.

In the scenario (a), you may want to delete a single letter if you exactly know that you misspelled at the last letter of the word. If the misspelled position is 3 letters away from the cursor, you have to press the key 4 times, and then type the rest of the word. At this point, you would probably want to press Option + Delete to delete the entire word and then type the word from scratch. Since you are used to type word-by-word, typing a word from the scratch is probably easier than continuing from a midpoint.

I almost always use Option + Delete when writing, and I wonder why neither Microsoft or Apple didn't this as the default behavior of the key so that you don't have to use the key combination.

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  • @EvilJS if you don't see how this relates to Computer Science (or what it actually is, despite what it purports to be) then you've missed a few of the key deviations in computing's history. You might want to also research how the clipboard was named as such, and why it's ridiculously limited.
    – Confused
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 9:44
  • Writing sentences and words like in e-mails or letters it's the only purporse. Most users don't just use computers, they need them for work. E.g. programmers would be dead if they need to retype everything the need to correct...
    – Paebbels
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 12:22
  • It seems like the OP should remap their keyboard and let us know how it feels after a month or two of usage.
    – chicks
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 15:09
  • I've never in 15 years of computer usage felt the need to delete a whole word strong enough to find out or test if there was a keyboard shortcut to do this. Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 16:42

6 Answers 6

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Let's imagine this: I have a very long world (Rindfleischettikettierungüberwaschungaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, viva German), but I misstyped something in the middle of it. It would be a waste of time to rewrite the whole thing, rather than simply go back a few letters and replace the wrong one with the good one.

Of course, if I would write down this wird, and change my mind, it would be a lot easier to delete the whole word at once, than letter by letter, but these scenarios almost never occur.

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  • Off - topic, but what is a loose translation of that German word? I can follow the first few words, being something about beef labeling, but the rest is unclear.
    – Nzall
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 13:06
  • @NateKerkhofs The law for transferring the tasks of monitoring the labeling of beef (Rindfleisch_etikettierung_überwachungs_aufgaben_übertragungs_gesetz; with two typos fixed) in one massive word.
    – Sebb
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 13:23
  • @Sebb It's hard to write it down on a mobile device :/
    – Bálint
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 14:54
  • @Bálint But you kinda prove your Point (;
    – Sebb
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 16:49
  • @Sebb kind of ironic.
    – Bálint
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 15:55
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Because modern keyboards are derived from typewriters.

backspace (BS) – a keystroke that moved the cursor backwards one position (on a physical platen, this is the exact opposite of the space key), for the purpose of overtyping a character. This could be for combining characters (e.g. an apostrophe, backspace, and period make an exclamation point—a character missing on some early typewriters), or for correction such as with the correcting tape that developed later. [1]

Adopting the layout from typewriters was important because humans are creatures of habit, and it made switching from typewriters to computers easier for the industry and individual persons. But especially on the business side it was much easier to adopt computers as new technology when it was as backwards-compatible with existing technologies as possible, because this meant less need to train employees.

[1] Wikipedia: Typewriter

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To you, setting deleting a letter as the default behavior doesn't seem to be a good design. To others, setting deleting a letter as the default behavior does seems to be a good design.

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  • 4
    I agree but this isn't really an answer. The asker is assuming that most people are in the first group; you're assuming that most people are in the second group; these are both assumptions of the form "most people are like me." Anyway, there's not much point in trying to improve this answer as the question is off-topic and will probably be closed fairly soon. Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 1:18
  • His assumption has nothing to do with himself. And he is correct. Your generalisation is the problem, not his.
    – Confused
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 9:47
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There are many UX concerns, but primarily its taken from the typewriter times:

Backspace is the keyboard key that originally pushed the typewriter carriage one position backwards.

(Wikipedia)

A bit of technical background

Now, what the key actually does isn't deleting the last letter, but it's sending a keystroke, like every other keypress does. In this case it's 0x08 or \b, which is basically a special character like space. What you actually have in your Word document could be Helli\bo Wkr\b\borld; but most editors will simply interpret \b like typewriters: Put your curser back a letter. Most will delete the last character instantly (no need to store this), but some versions of vi for example will keep the letters until you exit insert mode.

Yeah, that's nice and cool, but why doesn't it delete a word?

Simple: Because typewriters could not. Modern programs can analyze your past text and search for the next non-alphanumeric character, but when typing started, you basically just moved stamps which happen to had letters on them. They could only move back on position at a time, because this is easy to do mechanically and at the beginning, it was even technically not that easy. Some programs even remained in this age; try ctrl+backspace in windows explorer.

The reason we kept it is because of backwards compatibility.

Typewriters coexisted with PCs for some time and you wanted those people to switch with easy. Also, accidentally deleting most of your text because a typo three chars ago is not that nice. The final point is that there are still a lot of people out there typing with two fingers and those surely do not want to retype whole words.

TL;DR

It's bad UX for many people and it was always this wayTM. Look at your scary keyboard layout. It's here to stay ;)

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Backspace deletes one letter at a time because you input one letter at a time.

It is counter intuitive if you would delete a bigger unit by default, than the smallest one you can enter.

There is also a level of ambiguity in deleting a whole word. What is a word? Is it a set of characters, separated by a space or by any punctuation? If I program and enter i+++ but I meant to enter i++, does a backspace delete just a single plus, multiple pluses, or everything?

By the same token, a computer is a general computing device capable of manipulating languages with different syntaxes. A word in one language may not be a word in another and vice versa. What they all have in common, however, is that they all write a word by a keystroke at a time so the most logical deletion would be that same keystroke at a time since it is the common denominator between all languages and the smallest unit of entry.

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  • The last to paragraphs are kinda disproven by the existence of ctrl+backspace.
    – Sebb
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 16:52
  • @Sebb Not really because cltr+backspace is a custom action that is tailored for each application and plain backspace is the same everywhere. For example: take wordpad and sublime handling of "a_string_with_underscores". Ctrl+Backspace will delete the whole phrase in sublime, but worpad only deletes up to the first underscore. Now imagine if this was the action done by Backspace without modifiers. You would go insane. Some applications don't even provide Ctrl+Backspace handling (e.g. notepad, Command Prompt and others)
    – Rado
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 17:18
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Why does Backspace on a computer also delete a character? Note that computers implement Backspace as a Left cursor and a Delete. It does not insert a Space. (It depends on the editor.) Computers do not generally allow over-strike as seen on a typewriter. Backspace on a typewriter is just a Left cursor.

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