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Clicking the Right Button

I would like to share with you a tiny personal frustration in the hope that by doing so, I can eventually eliminate it. The frustration is that in nearly every Mac-related book and article I write, the Powers That Be require me to add cumbersome extra words - over and over again - to explain how to click one of the buttons on your mouse (or trackball or trackpad).

What I want to be able to say is, "right-click" (followed by whatever it is you should right-click on, and what you should do afterwards), but what my editors invariably make me say is "Control-click (or right-click)" - that is, hold down the Control key while clicking, or alternatively click the right-hand mouse button. Presumably they do this because of a belief that a large percentage of Mac users don't know what a right click is, don't have an input device that can perform a right click, or have deliberately chosen not to enable this feature on their input device - meaning the only guaranteed way to get the desired end result is to Control-click. After all, for many years Macs had only one-button mice, and to this day don't require two-button mice, so to tell someone to right-click - so the thinking goes - is to tell them to do something that may be incomprehensible or even impossible.

Except I don't buy that. It was true a decade ago, of course, but it is far from true today. I am convinced that the vast majority of people who read what I write about the Mac are sufficiently attuned to modern ways to know exactly what I mean by right-clicking and that no further explanation is necessary, even if they physically lack a second mouse button. But for those few of you who are still scratching your heads over the notion of a right click, I want to not only clear things up once and for all but also persuade you that a second mouse button (or its trackpad equivalent) is a true friend that will, once you get properly acquainted, fill you with joy for the rest of your days. I also have some other things to say about that extra button that may be of interest to everyone, however comfortable you may already be with a multi-button mouse.

Hot Button Issue -- By way of disclosure and background, you should know that I spent five years (1997-2002) managing the development of Kensington's MouseWorks software for both Mac and Windows, which, among other things, enables users to define the functions of all the buttons on certain Kensington input devices. During my tenure at the company, we released a trackball with 11 buttons and a touchpad device called WebRacer with no fewer than 22 buttons! The software has apparently languished in recent years - I don't know anything about that, so don't ask! - but I'm just saying that my professional involvement with multi-button input devices goes way back, and undoubtedly gives me a certain bias.

I should also mention another bias here at the outset: I'm right-handed. As my wife, who's left-handed, would be quick to point out, the whole notion of a "right click" is a bit discriminatory, as left-handed people tend to use their left index finger to click their primary mouse button (on the right side of the mouse) and their middle finger to click the secondary button (on the left side of the mouse). So the neutral term - and the one Apple uses - is "secondary click," but the nature of English is such that that expression works well as a noun but less well as a verb. I can tell you to "right-click" something, but it sounds awkward to "secondary-click" something. So, with apologies to the lefties out there, I follow the convention (long established in the Windows world) of using "right-click" to mean "click the secondary button," which is to say the logical right button, even if it happens to be physically located on the left (or top or bottom or elsewhere) on your input device of choice.

A Scroll Down Memory Lane -- Let's zip back in time to 1984. The Mac is brand new, and one of its nifty innovations (although not in fact invented by Apple) is a little box called a mouse. The mouse made the Mac's unique graphical interface possible, and introduced an entirely new way for people to interact with computers. Instead of having to memorize commands that you must type on a keyboard, you could point at words and pictures on the screen, and by clicking that big button on top of the mouse, tell it to take some action. At the time, some people saw the mouse as superfluous and confusing - everybody already understands keyboards, and they work just fine, don't they? - but it caught on quickly enough and soon became a normal way to operate a computer.

The original Mac mouse had only one button, because the operating system was designed to need just one. Apple wanted to make the operation of the computer as simple and obvious as possible, and one of their design principles was to make the user interface "discoverable" - that is, it should be as easy as possible to figure out what everything does and how to perform any operation, with minimal dependence on documentation, labels, and other external cues. As history has shown, that approach worked remarkably well, and the single-button mouse was an important contributing factor to the success of the Mac in particular, and of graphical interfaces generally.

Of course, the Mac's interface didn't remain unique for long. Microsoft Windows 1.0, released in 1985, supported (but didn't require) a mouse, as did graphical shells developed for various versions of Unix, as well as a long list of other operating systems that are no longer with us. What was different about the Windows approach, however, was the assumption that your mouse would have (at least) two buttons. (In much of the Unix world, three-button mice were the norm, but I'm going to ignore that in this article.)

So, why the extra button? Microsoft wanted to give users and developers more flexibility. The left mouse button selected or activated what you clicked on (just as on a Mac), whereas the right button was available for developers to use as they saw fit, and in the early years of Windows, the behavior of that button varied quite a bit. Starting with Windows 95 (released in 1995), standard behavior for the right mouse button in Windows was to display a pop-up menu at the pointer location with a list of commands relevant to whatever it was you clicked on. And that's what most people have come to assume that "right click" means, at least on a PC.

By late 1997, Apple had clearly seen the value of those contextual pop-up menus, which could simplify activities such as copying, pasting, or modifying whatever text, icon, or other object happened to be under the mouse pointer. With the release of Mac OS 8, Mac users finally got the capability that had been standard on Windows for a couple of years, but because Mac mice still had only one button, the way to access this capability was to hold down the Control key while clicking that one button. That was the genesis of the Control-click.

Giving the Finger to the Right Button -- Mac users immediately noticed and complained about the fact that it required two hands to do this common activity that Windows users could perform with one finger. But Apple's position was that Mice Have One Button - period. The company steadfastly refused to complicate the elegant Mac design by adding an extra, potentially confusing button. After all, what is there about that second button to hint at its use? How will people know what it's for? What if they click the wrong button by mistake and get unexpected results? No, those things aren't consistent with the smooth, uncluttered design of the Mac. Apple wasn't merely saying Mac mice shouldn't have multiple buttons, but implying that Mac users were wrong to want them. It wasn't the Macintosh way.

Of course, Apple wasn't the only company building mice and other pointing devices that could work on a Mac, and other developers - including Kensington, Logitech, and even Microsoft - were only too happy to meet users' demands by selling multi-button Mac mice. These invariably required custom driver software to connect the extra button(s) to some activity, and in order to make the right mouse button produce a contextual menu the same way the right button does in Windows, the software simply emulated a Control-click. Mice with more than two buttons let you assign other activities (such as double-clicking, emulating menu commands, or typing text) to the additional buttons.

It wasn't until the release of Mac OS X in 2001 that Apple built support for multi-button mice directly into the operating system. You could plug any old 2-button USB mouse into a Mac running Mac OS X 10.0, and that right button would magically pop up a contextual menu - no extra software or Control-click emulation required! And if your mouse had more than two buttons, Mac OS X understood them and passed them along to the active application for processing in whatever way it deemed fit.

That development was a boon to users and a convenience to companies making multi-button mice, but Apple persisted in its practice - which by this point appeared rather bloody-minded - of selling only single-button mice.

But surely, you might be thinking, Apple had a valid point - two buttons are indeed more complicated than one, right? To understand why having two buttons can reduce complexity rather than increase it, you have only to think of a digital clock. Have you ever tried to set the time on a clock with just one button? You have to hold it down until the right time cycles around - and if you don't release it at the right time, you must wait for another cycle, a real pain. With two buttons you can go at multiple speeds, or forward/backward, depending on the clock's design. With three, maybe you can toggle AM/PM with a single press rather than having to cycle through 24 hours. And if the clock has a full keypad, it's simpler still - just type in the exact time and you're done. So, multiple buttons may look more complicated, but in fact they sometimes make the user interface simpler because they reduce the complexity of the action you must perform to accomplish some task. Multi-button mice are the same way.

(On the other hand, despite the fact that Windows had right-clicking long before the Mac did, Microsoft made what I regard as a poor design choice: they made some actions available only via a right click, which makes them harder to find. Apple's Human Interface Guidelines, by contrast, stipulate: "Always ensure that contextual menu items are also available as menu commands. A contextual menu is hidden by default and a user might not know it exists, so it should never be the only way to access a command. In particular, you should not use a contextual menu as the only way to access an advanced or power-user feature." Alas, Apple occasionally ignores their own policy, as in the case of iPhoto's Detect Missing Faces and Rescan for Location commands, but at least the principle is sound. One other note: for better or worse, unlike Windows, Mac OS X has never had a concept of right-click-and-drag, as you might do to create a shortcut, for example.)

Apple Gets It Right, Sort Of -- Hell finally froze over in August 2005 when Apple introduced the Mighty Mouse (now called the Apple Mouse due to a legal complication over the name). This new rodent had physical sensors on both left and right sides of the top, a switch that activated when you squeezed the mouse, and a sensor that detected when the tiny trackball (for scrolling) was pressed down. This made for a total of four logical buttons, even though the case had no visible physical buttons (you press the entire top of the case to click, and the left or right "button" registers depending on which part of the case your finger is in contact with). Finally, using a genuine Apple mouse, users could right-click properly - and then some!

Interestingly, though, the fact that the Mighty Mouse had the equivalent of four buttons didn't seem to change Apple's official stance. For one thing, the mouse's physical design meant Apple could maintain the illusion that it still wasn't selling a multi-button mouse (or in fact a mouse with any buttons at all). For another, the default behavior of Mac OS X was to treat both the left and right sensors on top of the mouse the same - as a standard click. That is, out of the box, the Mighty Mouse was still a one-button mouse! Users were now obligated to change a setting in System Preferences explicitly to make the right "button" perform a right click.

Apple's recent release of the Magic Mouse has continued this trend. Now not only have the buttons disappeared but so has the scrolling mechanism, replaced by a more-capable, but invisible, multi-touch sensor. Unfortunately, the Magic Mouse has only two logical buttons rather than four, which is a giant step backward in functionality.

Tap Into the Power -- The story regarding right-clicking on laptops is a bit more complicated. No Apple laptop has ever had more than one physical trackpad button, and current models have no visible buttons at all - the entire trackpad is a button, and how it behaves depends on the number, position, and motion of fingers touching the pad.

For a long time, the only way users of Mac laptops could display a contextual menu was to hold down the Control key while clicking the single trackpad button (or use an external pointing device). Trackpads on Mac laptops introduced since January 2005 have the option - if you enable it - of producing a right-click response when you hold two fingertips on the trackpad and click the button (on some models) or tap with two fingers at the same time (on others). Even before that, one could use Raging Menace's $15 Sidetrack software to "right-click" by tapping on the trackpad. And beginning with the MacBook Air introduced in February 2008, Mac laptops began using multi-touch trackpads that optionally produce a right click response when you tap in a designated (lower left or lower right) corner of the trackpad. With that configuration, it can literally be a right click, but in any case, laptop users have no longer needed both hands to get at contextual menus for several years.

Getting Right to the Point -- As far as I can tell, Apple no longer sells single-button mice at all. Your current choices are the Apple Mouse (four logical buttons, wired) or Magic Mouse (two logical buttons, wireless). Every desktop Mac model introduced in October 2005 or later that included a mouse came with a multi-button mouse, and every laptop Mac model introduced in January 2005 or later has a trackpad that can produce a secondary click with one hand. So everyone whose Mac is four years old or newer has the capability to right-click, whether or not it's enabled in System Preferences. Anyone running any version of Mac OS X with a third-party multi-button mouse, trackball, or trackpad can also right-click. And even users of Macs running System 7 can - with a third-party input device and its accompanying software - perform a right click.

In short, Mac users who lack the hardware capability to right-click are increasingly few and far between, and the vast majority of those could remedy that situation, if they choose to do so, with nothing more than a $5, two-button mouse.

If you are one of those people without an input device that can right-click - or if you have the capability but haven't enabled it - I urge you to join the ranks of multiple clickers at your earliest opportunity! To reiterate, the key advantage is that you'll be able to display a contextual menu with one finger, rather than two hands. Even if you normally keep both hands on the keyboard, you'll probably find, with a day or two of practice, that right-clicking requires less effort and coordination than Control-clicking - and that it quickly becomes second nature.

And if you don't yet use contextual menus at all, well, you don't know what you're missing. Because that pop-up menu is right at your pointer location, you needn't move the pointer across a (possibly large) screen to access common menu commands such as Paste, Duplicate, Label, and many others - depending, of course, on context. Even if you prefer keyboard shortcuts to menu commands (as I do most of the time), there are often cases in which you must select something (with the mouse) before performing a command. When you can select and perform the command with one click, rather than selecting first, returning your hand(s) to the keyboard, and then pressing some keys, you save all sorts of effort.

If I've persuaded you to give right-clicking a try and you have a pointing device that supports it (which, I believe, should be pretty much everyone reading this), you can turn on the feature somewhere in System Preferences. The exact method depends on which version of Mac OS X you're using, whether you have a wired or Bluetooth pointing device, a trackpad, or some combination of these, and whether or not your device is made by Apple. But in general, do one of the following:

  • For older Apple mice and third-party pointing devices without their own software, open the Mouse pane of System Preferences. Choose Secondary Button from the pop-up menu pointing to the button you want to use for right-clicking.
  • For the Apple Magic Mouse, open the Mouse pane of System Preferences. Make sure Secondary Click is checked, and choose either Left or Right from the pop-up menu to determine which side you should press for a secondary click.
  • For Mac laptops, open the Trackpad pane of System Preferences and check either Tap Trackpad Using Two Fingers for Secondary Click or Place Two Fingers on Trackpad and Click Button for Secondary Click.
  • For third-party pointing devices with their own software, follow the documentation included to assign a right (or secondary) click to the button of your choice.

And that's it. Point at something, click your secondary button (typically with your middle finger), and notice what happens. Try it again with other things - text selections in various programs, icons in the Finder, graphics in a drawing application, and so on - and take note of how the commands change. Once you've gotten into the habit of performing common actions this way, you'll never want to go back to a single-button mouse. And you'll know exactly what I mean when I tell you to right-click!


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Comments about Clicking the Right Button
(Comments are closed.)

David Ferrington  2009-12-18 02:09
Nanny State!, I've known what a right-click (and a middle-click) was since the early 80s!
Ok, I'm in IT, but a lot of people I know you aren't knew in the 90s. I only ever say 'right-click' in my docs (ok, they aren't published publicly).
I, too, have wondered about the terminology. I'm used to writing "Control-click" but lately I've been wondering if we have outgrown that usage. I'll have to see what my editors say about it.
Stu Hamstra  2009-12-18 06:52
I have no idea what a "right click" means - never did it, and don't intend to do it. Been using a Mac since the "Fat Mac" and for me a 2-button mouse is a PC solution to what never was a problem to begin with. Why complicate what is so simple?
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 04:13
Stu: If you don't know what a right click is or why it makes life less complicated rather than more, you didn't read this article - which I wrote just for people like you!
Obi-Wandreas  2009-12-18 06:52
The beauty of secondary-click on the Mac is that it's not a requirement. It's there to simplify things if you want, but not needed if you don't.
I think we need a generic, easy-to-use term that's synonymous with "secondary-click." How about "clack?" Once you learn what it means to you (right-click, control-click, two-fingers-on-the-trackpad-click, etc.) you're done!

"To display the contextual menu, clack the icon."

OK, sounds kinda stupid now but I'm sure we would get used to it, or to some other term.

I think you're arguing that "right-click" *is* that term, but a generic would silence the critics and be less confusing in the long run.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 06:54
I'm with you on this, Neil (as one of the Powers That Be that's not wild about right-click as a term). I understand the desire to have another term besides Control-click (though, honestly, it doesn't bother me one bit, and I very much do still Control-click a lot), but right-click just feels as though it could be too decoupled from the reality of a particular Mac.
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2009-12-18 19:14
I love "clack!" Let clacks ring out in a thousand personal blogs and tweets, building a solid enough base for pro and semi-pro writers to dip their toe in clack's soothing waters. I think I set the metaphor on Frappé on that one.
"clack" is funny, but I think a couple of guys in Cambridge, Mass might object. Or maybe not.

I think you are all vastly underestimating the number of people out there who have no clue how to right click on a Mac. I'm constantly reminding my wife and my mother about this, and they're both long term Mac users. For them, a Mac mouse has one button.

Yes, a right click is a great convenience. I use it all the time. But I think to call it "right-click" is to invite confusion since at least half the people out there don't actually have a right button. "Control-click" is more descriptive and only uses a few more characters.

Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 09:32
Whatever the current percentage of Mac users who don't have a clue about right-clicking, I'm hoping to reduce it dramatically! :-)

As for Control-click, I'm saying that I personally never Control-click, because I have easier ways to accomplish the same task, and I'm trying to encourage others to use those easier methods too.
peelman  2009-12-18 10:28
Agreed with Peter. I will point out that in most (well designed) applications, the context menu is generally a convenience thing and all functions of it *should* exist in the menu bar. There are exceptions to that rule, and there are developers who outright ignore that rule, but often times its easier to tell somebody "Go to View->Blah->Blah" than it is to say

"Ok great, right click on the right mouse button....ok fine, hold control and click the button on your you still have to have the cursor on the while you're doing it...oh &#$* it, let me fire up ARD and i'll do it for you..."
Tonya Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 07:05
As the primary "Powers that Be" who set the style guidelines for the Take Control ebook series, of which Joe has written many, many ebooks, I will be reading the comments here with interest. I think "clack" is an amusing solution, but regrettably inventing brand new words is likely to cause even more confusion. Generally speaking, we do follow Apple's lead on terminology, but I wager that for everyone who doesn't know what a "right click" is, there are ten people who don't know what a "secondary click" is.
Bertrand Morin  2009-12-18 07:14
The Logitech TRACKMAN WHEEL (sexist mouse) has a a L and a R button, a Wheel and a Center roller, hence allowing all sorts of possiblities through the software, namely to access directly the R-Click matter; it also occupies less space on a desk. I have two, one wired, the other un-wired. Nice
Until I read this I had no idea what a right click was. I have a three button mouse and no idea why I need more than one button.

Control click makes sense and tells me what to do. That's like a design that makes operative behavior visual (like a door that opens in a direction that's obvious from looking at it).
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 09:33
But now that you know about right clicks, your life can be a tiny bit less complicated :-).
peelman  2009-12-18 10:29
I can't tell if you're being satirical or not...if not I really feel sorry for you. Welcome to 1995...
David Weintraub  2009-12-18 07:50
Most of the Mac users I deal with have no idea that you can have a "right-click". And, I've found the same with most Windows users. In fact, they find the second mouse button confusing because they sometimes click on it. Even worse are the lefties who don't bother changing the mouse buttons around.

I go through this debate myself. Why do I have to go to the Preferences to activate the secondary click? (I'm a lefty, it's a LEFT-click for me).

I vote for Control-Click. Us power users will figure it out, and the non-power users won't get confused. Or, we could refer to it as the Context Menu which will make everyone equally confused.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 09:34
In my experience, most people click 99.999% of the time with the same finger, in the same spot. So any button that isn't under that finger just goes unused. All I'm saying is: you can save yourself some effort by using it!
David Weintraub  2010-01-06 12:46
It's that .001% that throws people off though. I've gotten people who contacted me about strange behavior on their computer because they clicked the wrong button. It might only happen 1 in 1000 times, but how many times do users click on the mouse?
sfmitch  2009-12-18 08:09
I am constantly going through this (one man tech support biz) with clients.

First, most people, mac and windows don't use the right (secondary) mouse button. Most of those people don't even know right-clicking exists.

Second, most Apple users switched from the PC. The PC world has always (I think) had mice with 2 buttons. I find many new Mac users have no idea that Apple mice (mouse formerly known as mighty mouse) has a 2nd button.

Third, I vote for the "right-click".

Fourth, I strongly vote against "clack".
Michael Schmitt  2009-12-18 08:49
Until Apple enables the right button by default, you have to assume that control-click is required to activate the secondary button.

And I agree with the posters that you are underestimating the number of users who are do not understand left and right click. I've watched Mac users struggle with a two-button mouse, who simply do not get the difference between the buttons. They just madly click until something happens.

And it isn't just Mac users. I've also seen WIndows users who are confused by right click. And heaven forbid if they need to shift-right-click-and-drag.

Just the fact that we're reading TidBITS means we have above-average computer knowledge. To see what it's like in the real world, you just have to spend a few minutes reading the Computer Stupidities at
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 09:36
I'm trying to change assumptions here. Apple might never activate the secondary click by default, and if they don't, they might argue that it's because there's no default setting that would be appropriate for both left- and right-handed people. But that doesn't mean most Mac users wouldn't benefit from turning it on, which is what I was hoping to get across in the article.
Michael Cohen  2009-12-18 09:12
I regularly assist an elderly Mac user who moved to Mac from Windows a few years ago. Over the past several years, I have set up two Macs for her, and both times she insisted I NOT set up a secondary click. She hated it/was confused by it on Windows and felt the same way about it on the Mac.

Although a single data point (also known as an anecdote) is seldom trustworthy, nonetheless this one does indicate that, regardless of the benefits of right-clicking, and regardless of whether the user knows it exists, some people Just Don't Want It. De gustibus, and all that....
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 09:39
We all learned how to use a single mouse button, though for some people that was a difficult move away from the keyboard as the sole input device. My feeling is that you can keep a habit if you want to, but if you can make your life easier by learning a very tiny new habit, why not do so?

Keep in mind, too, that the right click isn't the only example of this. Your Shift key behaves differently from your Option key and your Command key. Would the keyboard be simpler if you had just one modifier? Sure! Would it make your Mac easier to use, though? Absolutely not. So, to some extent, I'm arguing that people who are fighting the "complexity" of an extra button are being somewhat disingenuous, as they've already successfully learned to use and differentiate among many other controls.
Joe - I've been using Macs for nearly 20 years now and providing tech support, both professionally and for family/friends, for almost as long. I say, try to provide your documentation so that anyone with a plain vanilla system can understand what you're saying straight off. Description of other configurations should be an optional extra. In this case, that would mean the "press [ctrl]-click (or right-click) on your mouse".

You're trying to force (some) people out their comfort zones. You'll be able to tempt some of them and they may well thank you for it: hurrah - result! But you'll upset/confuse/alienate/irritate others.

As a power user, I do appreciate what you're talking about. But I think you're going about your "campaign" in the wrong way.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 10:43
Right-clicking isn't - and shouldn't be - a power-user feature any more than using the Option or Command key is. I'm trying to make life easier for everyone, really! But it does require people to change old habits (in a very tiny way, in this case), as EVERY technology does. I can't apologize if the suggestion that someone might benefit from discovering how to use another button is upsetting.
Graham Lindsay  2009-12-18 13:00
As a Mac user since 1985 one of the best things about MacOSX and mice is that everyone has a choice. I know that every person has a preferred way of seeing, thinking and acting. I prefer diagrams; others prefer words. I use a wide range of applications and I use the nearest, most effective method of clicking depending on where my hands happen to be. I use ctrl-click, right click, keybd shortcut, tablet & pen, Apple Mouse and a small wireless third party mouse. I use whatever is most efficient at the time. Let people find their preferences. A colleague of mine who cannot type to save his life uses speech control and a headset (he's rusted on to windoze). Investigating what works for you is an important investment in productivity.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-18 13:05
I couldn't agree more. I feel bad for those who insist that they couldn't possibly bring themselves to try any new way of using their Macs, however much effort it might potentially save them!
I'm sorry to tell you this, but it's still necessary. A nameless mac user in my family who's been using computers in some way or another since about 1980 recently got very frustrated with some directions and called me.

The problem was that their new Mac Book Pro didn't have anyway to 'right' click.

Dan Knight  2009-12-19 01:56
I've been using multibutton mice on my Macs for ages, and before that I had a Logitech mouse on my PC. The term 'right-click' got its start on the Dark Side, and I think it makes immeasurably more sense to at the very least give it priorit - e.g. Right-click (or Command-click).

Being able to click a single button is simply more efficient than coordinating a mouse button and a key. I would never pay money for a mouse without at least two buttons and a scroll wheel.

That said, the thing that annoys me is people who refuse to learn even the most basic keyboard commands: Save, Print, Undo, etc. Instead, they are constantly reaching for the mouse....
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-19 02:31
Dan: Thank you! It sounds like we're in complete agreement. In my view, life is too short to waste time using one's computer inefficiently, so I'm always looking for faster and easier ways to accomplish a given task. So I'm a big fan of keyboard shortcuts, macro utilities, scripting, and so on, and right-clicking is, for me, in that same category of time-savers.
Leland  2009-12-19 13:39
@ Dan Knight -- Remember, of course, that command-click is different from control-click... which are different from shift-click, option-click, etc.

Granted, those aren't all used equally as often, but duplicating them all on a trackpad would be silly.
A portion of my consulting business is supporting Mac users. The great majority are decidedly not power users. I do my best to educate this majority about the advantages of contextual menus / right-click. It's a hard sell ... but I keep trying.
I'm posting my second comment to thank Joe for pointing out that the Magic Mouse has only two buttons. My Mighty Mouse (I'm sticking with the old name) has the scroll button configured as Button 3. No Button 3 on the Magic Mouse -- no sale!
You scroll on the magic mouse by touch on top of the mouse
Charlie Hartley  2009-12-22 12:04
Just curious if I'm the only lefty who uses his right hand to control the mouse/trackpad. Control-clicking just seems natural with me: left hand on the control key, right hand on the trackpad. I do it almost without thinking about it. I'll have to try the two-finger approach for a while (if I can remember).
Shawn Plank  2009-12-22 16:46
I know of right-clicking and have tried in on my Mac mouses but often ended up frustrated when the mouse mistook my left-click for a right-click or vice-versa. I end up using my multifunction mouse as a single button mouse the way God (or Steve Jobs) intended. Maybe if I had a mouse with actual distinct buttons, I might be a convert. But as of now, I am at sea with a Mac mouse with right-click enabled. Leave me with left-click and I'm fine.
There's another point that I have not seen in this discussion yet. My dad was confused and frustrated by the right button on his mouse. He was perplexed by this mysterious "window" that would randomly appear on his screen. He was inadvertently pressing the right button because he didn't know the mouse had one.

I couldn't figure it out over the phone, but fortunately, Apple Care did. They simply disabled the right mouse button through the system preferences.

I have to wonder if he would have been better off had Apple made it clear that the mouse had more than one button. What's that rule about making things "obvious" and "discoverable"?

Dad is an intelligent guy -- retired MD, 72 -- but by no means a power user. His previous computer was a Windoze machine. So, he certainly had exposure to multi-button mice. I don't know if he ever used the right button on his old machine, but he probably saw that it was there and avoided it.
Ian Eiloart  2009-12-23 04:07
You're not left handed, are you? I know people who can't right click because they have no second button on their mouse. I know people with no secondary button configured on configurable mice. I know people for whom the secondary button is the left button, not the right.

"secondary click" is an ugly phrase. I quite like "clack" as an alternative.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-23 04:37
No, as I said in the article, I'm right-handed, although my wife is left-handed. I'm just saying that in spite of the fact that the secondary button may be on the left, I think it's OK to use the term "right-click" as a less cumbersome way of saying "click the secondary button."
David S.  2009-12-25 15:35
I think it's time to face facts - after years of trying to change people's behaviour (and failing) the concept of multi-button mice, right-clicking, etc., is simply too complex for most ordinary users.

Apple had it dead right in 1984 and should never have given in to the Windows/Unix multi-button brigade. The gain is too small for the added complexity and confusion it causes (as several have noted many Windows users don't understand/use the right button, that says it all). It's like qwerty vs Dvorak keyboards. Us geeks can't see the problem but the people out there who don't dote on computers certainly do.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-25 15:40
Well, I couldn't disagree more! No one's forcing anyone to change their behavior, but Apple (and mouse manufacturers, and I) are saying, "Hey, look! There's an easier way to do something you already do! Why not give it a try?"
David S.  2009-12-25 16:28
You can disagree all you want, but after 20+ years of right-clicking the majority still don't understand it and don't use it. On PCs as well as Macs. Stop banging your head against a brick wall, it'll feel so good when you stop ;-)
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-12-25 16:31
I'm not disagreeing that lots of people are unaware; I'm disagreeing that it's a feature that shouldn't exist - and also disagreeing (as I say in the article) that it's additional complexity or confusion; I believe it's actually less. It's like saying your TV should only display one channel because lots of people won't learn how to change the channels, because the extra buttons are too complex. Those people are welcome to their one channel, but I'd sure rather have the choice!
Glenn Fleishman  2009-12-25 17:51
I use left, right, scroll click, and scroll wheel...but I never wanted a 20-button mouse. Not yet, at least.
Apple has not given in. As far as I know Apple has NEVER shipped a multi-button mouse. Sure, the recent mighty mouse and magic mouse CAN behave like a multi-button mouse, but it is a feature you have to enable and it is there exclusively for those who want it. Someone who is not up on multi-button mice has a nice single button mouse. push anywhere and it clicks.
John Priddle  2009-12-29 04:27
I have never understood why Apple didn't decree that secondary clicking was to be accomplished in the time domain (after all the primordial mouse command is the double-click!).
Back in OS8.6, I had a third party app that called contextual menus by click-and-hold and a similar app exists for OS X.
But then OS X is more like X-windows than the Classic Mac OS! I say one-button good, three buttons bad ...
Jerry Dalton  2009-12-29 10:21
I think it just depends on what you get used to. Both work well with practice. Good for Apple for providing the choice.
Bruce Cole  2010-01-04 12:16
When I first got a Mac of my own (as opposed to using others' or at work), I immediately went out and got a two-button scrolling wheel mouse, similar to the one on the PC I also used at work. It's difficult to operate without it now -- I even have a mouse for my MacBook. If it weren't for PC's making the scroll wheel ALSO be a button, the world would make sense.
Dennis B. Swaney  2010-01-04 16:39
I first got a Kensington TurboMouse ADB for use with my Apple IIc, It moved to my Mac LC, Quadra 605, SuperMac C500, and with help from Griffin, to my Bondi Rev B. When I got a G4 iMac, I bought a Kensington ExpertMouse Pro (11 buttons!) I now have the ExpertMouse 4 on my G5 iMac. I'll NEVER go back to an Apple mouse. (well, maybe if they make a trackball I'd consider it) THANK YOU, Joe, for MouseWorks!
Really, Joe. Do we have to stoop? Where are the editors when you need them?
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-04 18:03
I have no idea what you're trying to say!
Jesse the K  2010-01-04 17:48
I wish there was a utility to provide multiple button mapping on my new MacBook Pro 13" multitouch trackpad.

Being able to open a new browser tab with command-click is so handy!

As far as the right words, "context clicking" is platform, and handedness, neutral
Gerry Curry  2010-01-04 17:57
Joe I've been an Apple professional for over 27 years. I've seen it all... so far, but if you're going to write for novice users you will need to continue to follow your editor's advice. I can only reiterate what others have said, because Apple steadfastly refuses to activate the secondary button by default, the vast majority of Mac users simply don't know it exists. I agree that this is a great pity, but there it is.

As for lefties, and I am one, I have learned, over years of providing support, to be quite comfortable using either hand, but at home I am definitely a leftie. That said, I never use anything but my index finger for both left and right clicks, and I don't reverse the buttons either.

While I'm at it, I'd be interested in a good driver that enables touch on the new Magic Mouse. Im using a driver now, but the proximity sensors in the mouse trigger whenever you hover too close, causing havoc all over the place!
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-04 18:06
I don't think it's helpful to take the viewpoint that this is something that not enough people know about yet, and so therefore it's eternally a lost cause. If Mac users need to be educated, then they can read this article! And we can all help spread the word.
Gerry Curry  2010-01-04 18:18
Read? You've got to be kidding. That's why they bought a Mac. (grin) And I mean this half-seriously.

Oh and don't think that I'm not on your side. I am. But it ain't gonna work laddie.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-04 18:23
So, convincing people to use the Shift key will never work, because it's an extra button? Command, Option, Control - forget it? Mute button on the TV remote? Redial button on the phone? People have shown an amazing capacity to grok the utility of extra buttons on many common devices. There's absolutely no reason this particular button should be any different. YES, I understand: some people feel the need to be specially stubborn about this one - but that's all it is.
Gerry Curry  2010-01-04 18:34
Joe, you and I live, breath and eat this stuff every day of our lives (oh God, I need a life) we see things with a very different perspective. You need to decide who you want to address.

All the buttons you referred to have the name stamped on them. The right button on a mouse does not say: "right button." These people aren't clairvoyant. Nor is it turned on by default.

I would have no problem talking to my professional clients about using the right button. I would have already set up their computers and activated it. They would see the benefits right away. but these are Power Users. When you deal with Joe Average Consumer you need to set your standards considerably lower. You wouldn't believe how low sometimes. Perhaps if you gave a general proviso in your introductory paragraph, you could then just say
right-click, but if you don't give any warning at all you will surely loose a lot of readers.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 02:15
I give Mac users credit for being at least as smart as (OK, way smarter than) Windows users, and no Windows documentation would ever spell out what right-click means, even for the most basic, non-power user. What I'd like to see, and try to encourage by way of this article, is for the same thing to happen on the Mac side!
David H  2010-01-04 18:51
WOW - lots of opinions. My $0.02 - THANKS! I picked up some tips to use on my new laptop. Big help.

Thanks again!
Ed Wood  2010-01-04 19:00
My first Mac wasthe oridinal witha monitor on a stalk.I threw the mouse away and used my logitech 4button mouse left over from windows. I stiil use that mouse 2 power Macs later
David Lyles  2010-01-04 20:20
After reading your article, I gave right-clicking (aka clacking) another try (having tried it and not liking it years ago). I set the right side of my standard issue Apple no-button iMac mouse as "secondary button."

After just a few minutes, I remembered why I didn't like it. Even making a conscious effort to click on the left side of the mouse when I didn't want a contextual menu, it was interpreted about half the time as a right click (perhaps because I use my index finger on the scroll ball, leaving no fingers on the left side). I then had to click again to get rid of the menu and carefully click yet once more on the left side, or take the time to scroll down to what just a fast double click would have done to start with. And sometimes not even that. Case in point: I'm here after double (left) clicking on "Read and post comments" in the TidBITS email in Eudora. An accidental right click gives me only "Search Web for 'post' " (useless) and nothing that opens the link.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 02:17
You could be saying you don't like the design of the Mighty Mouse (a fair point) or that you're accustomed to holding/clicking a mouse in a certain way that makes it harder to learn to distinguish between left and right clicks. Just don't confuse that with "not liking right-clicking"!
David Lyles  2010-01-04 20:22
"Once you've gotten into the habit of performing common actions this way, you'll never want to go back to a single-button mouse."

Back to the single-button for me. It's always good to remember: One size doesn't fit all.
Terry Lane  2010-01-04 21:46
You know Joe, I've been using Macs since the mouse was a novelty. What I can't understand is why Mr (InnovationsPlus) Jobs hasn't abandoned the mouse in favour of a wireless external trackpad, so that I can enjoy all of the wonderful features from my MacBook Pro on my Mac Pro. Of course, I'm sure that will happen just after I buy my next Mac ;-)
Mike van Lammeren  2010-01-04 22:50
Let's give credit where it's due: IBM's OS/2 Warp introduced contextual menus, not Windows 95.
Ron Lynch  2010-01-04 23:50
I use an old Kensington PilotMouse with 2 top buttons, 2 side buttons, and a clickable scroll wheel. With MouseWorks, I mapped one side button to Control-click, the scroll button to Shift-click, and the other side button to click and hold.

MouseWorks let me create a custom menu with Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste, and Select All; I assigned it to the right top button. Those heavily used items work almost everywhere. I wish they were included in all contextual menus by the OS. This menu even lets me copy or paste the highlighted name of a Finder icon where the standard contextual menu does not work.

Sadly, configuring MouseWorks seems to fail under new versions of the OS but because I configured it previously, the mapping still works under Leopard. I've looked for replacements to let me create my own menu and assign it to a mouse button but have not found one.

I agree with spreading the contextual menu gospel but I still think Control-click is more universal and more widely understood.
Hans-Werner Hein  2010-01-05 01:10
The article "Clicking the Right Button" confuses syntactic and semantic features concerning the gestical language, humans may use when talking to their computers. What is usually named "left-click" is at the semantic level one of many ways to say "object-select" or "object-focus". What is discussed as "right-click" is semantically one of many options to do an "action-menu-select". Imagine that soon we have more computers without physical gesture-devices. Start to abandon the outdated terminology of "right" and "left" and "click" when explaining to users "what to say" to computers. Then it becomes distinct for them that for any "what to say" they mostly have several choices of "how to say".
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 03:33
I don't think we can abandon terms like "click" as long as the mouse (or its equivalent) is the primary way to interact with computers. As this discussion shows, a lot of people don't grasp the "what to say" concept at all! And, no need to make documentation more cumbersome still. Compare "Click OK" to "Tell the computer to accept the default choice."
Jony Russell  2010-01-05 01:10
As someone who prefers to use the keyboard (and who occasionally has to teach elderly users, many of whom find using the mouse difficult), I'd be keen to learn how I might assign a keyboard shortcut to reproduce the right click. Ideally it'd be great if this could work across several applications but life is rarely that simple! How do visually impaired people manage? Presumably they don't use a mouse at all?
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 03:35
The problem is that a right click, like a standard click, is tied to the pointer coordinates - that's where the menu appears. The pointer location doesn't necessarily have anything to do with where the insertion point (if any) is, and it's awkward to move the pointer using the keyboard. So if you don't want to touch your mouse at all, you can (usually) assign keyboard shortcuts to the commands that would otherwise be on the contextual menu, but unfortunately you won't have the visual cue of being able to see what contextual commands are currently available.
Ian Stavert  2010-01-05 03:44
I use Windoze 2000 at work with a lot of Excel work - I right click. At home I used keyboard shortcuts for common actions or menus until the Mighty Mouse came along - but I found it difficult to get that device to work on the right click - you had to press down really specifically to get it to operate, so was hit and miss. But the Magic Mouse is different and the right click on the right side of the top works beautifully.
I suffered a frozen shoulder and at home chose to start using the mouse with my left hand, and have never changed sides - the index finger just moves slightly to the right of the top to engage the right click, and it is normally over the left side for standard click. It works.
I like "right-click" as a term - there are so many words/terms used everyday that have become generic terms to describe things, lets not muddy the waters and try to be different just because it's a Mac - more people use Windoze where it's called "right-click".
nicky y schleider  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2010-01-05 04:00
i had used a one button mouse for years. for a long time, i didn't even understand right clicking since i had never used a computer other than a mac. when i set up the two button mouse, i had it set up wrong. anytime i clicked, i wound up with unexpected results so i went back to a one button mouse. thanks to your article, i will try again
Tony Goldman   2010-01-05 05:06
When I read your article over the holidays I thought I would try using right-click, however I don't use a mouse but a Kensington trackball, indeed I have been using varieties of this since about 1995, however when I tried I could not get my trackball to recognise right-click. I use an iMac G5 20" with Leopard 10.5.8 . I contacted Kensington who tell me that for reasons of their own they have stopped updating Mouseworks 3 the software which controls the trackball some time ago and apparantly have no plans for a further upgrade. Has anyone any ideas for alternative software which can control a Kensington Turbo Mouse Pro and give me right -click?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:31
Yes, try Alessandro Levi Montalcini's USB Overdrive, which lets you control all sorts of USB pointing device options.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 07:42
For what it's worth, MouseWorks 3.0 is still working fine for me under Snow Leopard. Perhaps try reinstalling it?
Don Jeffries  2010-01-05 08:05
How about simply using ...

Control/Right click >?<

That's a convention even the unaware should be able to figure out.

I've been using a track ball for eons and always set it up for the right hand button (generally operated by the middle or ring digit) to take up the RightClick burden.
John Maliga  2010-01-05 10:51
I'm not sure a multi-button mouse is ever a good idea, at least from user interface design view. There's the old joke about Microsoft designing a car. The car, of course, has five brake pedals, each to be used in specific circumstances. I agree with several other commenters about overestimating secondary button use. Having taught and configured computers for many elder and/or new computer users, I have never found anyone who intuitively used or understood the use of the secondary button. It was a specific object of learning that many chose to ignore or bypass.

Click-hold (the legacy default Mac behavior for accessing secondary click characteristics) is both more elegant, and more intuitive. But neither behavior is sufficiently intuitive, and I suppose that is why Apple finally acquiesced to allowing the inclusion of hidden complexity in multi-button mice.
Michael Zerman  2010-01-05 20:33
I bought an Interex two-button scrolling mouse to use with my Lombard in July 1999, plus Apple keyboard and laptop stand.
Could never understand Apple's reluctance to make one, so I've bought other mices, primarily bottom of the line wired MS mice, all of which had perfectly good software.
And when something didn't work, as others have noted, USB Overdrive was a simply great piece of s/ware.

Michael Zerman
john hinckley  2010-01-06 05:24
This, along with the %^&%^&!!! inability to re-size a folder window from any location(as Windoz), does, have been my top two gripes for a number of years. I don't need a lot of buttons, but my last 3/4 Macs, have used a $15.00 MSoft 2 button mouse. It's always worked fine, and was cheap. Now if there was only an equally seamless way to re-size folder windows...

Eatoin Shrdlu  2010-01-06 18:24
Please, let us keep the debate about pros and cons of two-button (or multi-button) clicking options separate from the terminological question of calling the action typically carried out to invoke a contextual menu on a Mac "control-clicking" or "right-clicking".

I am neutral on the first issue and would like to leave the choice to each user's work habits and needs.

On the terminological issue, I strongly urge to stick to the term "control-click" as long as this reflects the intended and/or default behavior of Macs and their mice. More or less any Mac user that understands "right-click" in a Mac context will know that the standard equivalent action is control-clicking. But the converse is not true (be it only for the reason that there is no *standard* equivalent to control-clicking on a a Mac)! This asymmetry, rooted in the Mac-history, ought to be respected in the terminology used in articles and documentations.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-06 23:58
I'm trying to say that using the term "Control-click" merely reinforces the notion that there is no such thing as a right-click, and encourages a more difficult way of accomplishing a task rather than an easier way. So that's what I'd like to change. I'm arguing that "respecting history" is not a good thing in this instance, because it prevents us from moving forward!
Michael Mattinson  2010-01-06 19:41
As I read the original article it as about a desire to get over the use of CTRL-CLICK in writing. This matter is totally different than whether the use of more buttons is good or bad. I used to teach people that there is a RIGHT BUTTON and the other one is the WRONG BUTTON. Easy to tell someone to hit the WRONG BUTTON to accomplish something. I dislike the use in general of RIGHT and LEFT as it is not always so, and is therefore not all that accurate. I would vote for ACTION BUTTON if I could come up with a decent alternative for the OTHER BUTTON. And that limited concept goes out when you have more than two buttons. Perhaps start a campaign to actually label the buttons - similar to what is done on video game controllers - perhaps DO BUTTON and THINK BUTTON - and perhaps we can finally get a real ANY BUTTON.
Alia Michaels  2010-01-06 20:20
I'm a freelance technical writer. The way I work with this for my clients is that I put a 'conventions' section at the beginning of each manual to explain what terminology like Control-click and right-click mean and, in this case, their equivalence in Mac OS X. Given the prevalence of the 2+ button mouse with Mac OS X, I have started using "... right-click (or Control-click) ...".

My general convention, for consumer documentation, is to always have the menu command as the primary explanation. Depending on the available space, the keyboard shortcuts or the shortcut menu method can be presented briefly or cut out. Within the content, itself, anything related to shortcut menus is given as an alternate method... usually listed 3rd after the menu command and the keyboard shortcut -- whether with Mac or Windows. Therefore, if there's space, all bases are covered, but people who don't want to use the right [secondary] mouse button don't have to.
Patrick McClure  2010-01-07 02:11
I'm in the "perform a Control-click (however that's done with your computer input device)" crowd. Control-clicking is what everyone is accomplishing behind the scenes, as acknowledged in the article, so why not admit it? I Right-click sometimes, I Control-click sometimes, and now, thanks to your article, sometimes I two-finger tap my trackpad!
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-07 02:44
As someone who's intimately familiar with the inner workings of mouse software, I have to point out that "Control-click" is NOT what's really happening behind the scenes! Each mouse button sends a different message to the system, and "secondary click" is not the same as Control-click. That is, when you press the right mouse button, your mouse is NOT sending a "Control-click" to the system (although that workaround was once necessary, years ago). It's simply sending the message "this button was pressed," and Mac OS X just happens to respond the same way to that message as to "Control-click." But don't misunderstand what's going on - the Control-click is not somehow more "real" or "native"; in fact, it's just the reverse! When you Control-click, this causes Mac OS X to see a "secondary click" message.
Paul F Henegan  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2010-01-07 19:19
I'm surprised no one has mentioned yet the way that certain web browsers offered access to the secondary-click: click-hold, aka half-click. This was and continues to be exploited by Turly O'Connor's celebrated FinderPop.
Jeff Shepherd  2010-01-12 13:00
I always call it a context-click because it brings up a contextual menu. I like the idea of calling it a secondary-click or an alt-click (which brings up another complication of pressing the alt(option) key). I'm a lefty so I don't like using right-click because it is wrong for me.

Of course for any of this to work you need to have the button configured and if the button is configured you are preaching to the choir and it doesn't matter what terminology you use because it will probably be understood.

So control-click is the winner because that will always work even with a clueless user on an unmodified system.

Assuming this isn't a PC.