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Doing away with the mouse... or at least not using it as much


Not so long ago Windows was a bit of a novelty and a lot my work was done in MS-DOS. I used to have an 8086 and it didn't have a mouse but I could still use it for word processing, programming, spreadsheet work, and games.

Windows 3.1 was released in 1992 by Microsoft and was one of the first major PC GUI operating systems widely used. GUI is short for 'graphical user interface' and covers all the windows, icons, menus, and pointers (known as WIMP!) that Windows is made up of.

Windows 3.1 gave users several features previously not available in MS-DOS. This included the use of a mouse which allowed us to navigate and manipulate data on the computer simply and easily - if you could use a mouse that is.

Nowadays (I remember when this were nout but fields) people don't realise that there are alternatives to mouse use. Mice can cause serious pain through repetitive movement and poor positioning. It is also often quicker to use the keyboard. And have you ever seen a blind person using a mouse?

Keyboard Shortcuts

This is a phrase that's bantered around quite a lot to mean lots of different things. Keyboard shortcuts are specific combinations of keys that run commands, like printing. The common ones are the same from one program to another (especially if they are made by the the same company) but others vary wildly and can be pain to learn. Some of the most common ones that pop-up time and time again are as follows:

Shortcut Key Action
CTRL+C Copy highlighted text/file/pictures
CTRL+V Paste
CTRL+B Make text bold
CTRL+I Make text italic
CTRL+P Print
F1 Help

The syntax for shortcut keys is usually the command key (e.g. CTRL) followed by a plus then followed by the other key. So CTRL + C means that you need to hold down the CTRL key (either of them) and press the C key. If you have difficulties holding down two keys at once then I suggest you read my StickyKeys tutorial.

The F1 key, on its own, is almost always reserved for Help. If you're ever stuck in a computer program press F1 and a paper clip will do its best to help you. Super.

Shortcuts shown in a program's menus

You can find out what keyboard shortcuts do what in a particular program by looking in the menus or looking in Help. The menus usually have the keyboard shortcuts listed next to the items in the list. If there's no keyboard shortcut then there's probably no keyboard shortcut.

If you've never notice them before then you're not the only one - I've always said that the only way to get to grips with a computer is to learn to ignore all the stuff you don't need.

Anyhow, you can often also look up the shortcut keys in the program's help. Press F1 to start.

Here you can see a list of common keystrokes that apply to the whole of Windows.


Keyboard Control

I don't want to overcomplicate things, but I think of keyboard control as a bit different to keyboard shortcuts. The shortcuts are fine for a quick way of getting a common task done, like copying and pasting, but it'd be naff if every time you got a new program you had to memorise long lists of keyboard combinations. And what about those menu items that don't have shortcut codes?

Keyboard control gives you as much control over your programs as is possible without resorting to the mouse. And what's more it's really easy! All you need to remember are ALT, TAB, and SHIFT, ENTER, ESCAPE and when to use them (when I refer to the ALT key I mean the one on the left of the keyboard. The other one doesn't do very much).

Even with all these toolbar icons and wotnot floating around in every program, the rule has always been that everything you should want to do should be available in menus. This is usually the case - except for a few bad programs that don't work properly. Anyway this is great because the menus are actually fully keyboard accessible!

In a program like Microsoft Word, press the ALT key and you'll see that your File menu gets highlighted. You can then use your keyboard's arrow keys to navigate around the menus.

Menu items with underlined letters

Have you ever noticed that some letters in the menus are underlined? If you're using Windows XP then you might need to tap the ALT key to show these. These letters can be combined with the ALT key to jump straight into that menu. The general rule is that it's always the first letter in the word, unless that letter has been already taken on another menu. For example the Format menu in Word uses the 'o' because the 'F' has already been used in the File menu.

Anyway try pressing ALT + O in Word and you'll see that the Format menu opens up. If you want to open the Columns dialog box, simply press the letter C (there's no need for the ALT key as the menu is already open).

Columns Dialog

Up pops the columns dialog box where you may notice that there are more underlined letters for different parts of the dialog.

Want two columns? Press ALT + W.

Press Enter for OK or Escape for Cancel. This is a common rule that applies everywhere in Windows.

You can also use the arrow keys to adjust values within parts of the dialog. For example, there is a 'drop-down listbox' next to 'Apply to'. If I wanted to change the value in this I could:

Press ALT + A to select the list box. Use the up/down arrow keys to change the setting.

Clever, huh?

Not all programs are as well-written as Microsoft Word when it comes to keyboard control. Although it's extremely rare for a program not to have underlined letters in the menus, sometimes programmers forget about the dialog boxes. If you want to get around a naughty dialog box you can use the TAB key to move from area to area. You can use SHIFT + TAB to go round the other way. Play around with it and see what you think!

In newer versions of Microsoft Word the toolbar buttons are directly accessible using the cursor keys. How this is accomplished is covered in a separate article.


QPointer is a commercial piece of software that lets you take keyboard control of Windows to a whole new level. Read my review of QPointer right now.

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