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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 16 Issue 6
June 2022
Cut, Copy, & Paste: Not As Simple As You Might Think

The Problem

My work over the past few months with a variety of clients has reminded me that even the "simplest" of computer techniques can be more complex than they appear on the surface, and can therefore be quite difficult for the average person to understand and learn to use in a productive way.
If Cut, Copy, & Paste are easy for you to use, then feel free to skip this issue.
But if you've never quite understood these functions, or found them frustrating to use, see below for my advice on what they are, how they work, and why you would use them.
Two similar but separate techniques
The phrase "Cut, Copy, & Paste" actually refers to two distinct techniques:
  • Copy & Paste: Copy information from one area and insert it into another
  • Cut & Paste: Remove information from one area and insert it into another
Most of this discussion will focus on working with text (characters, words, paragraphs), but in general almost any kind of data that can be selected can be Cut or Copied and then Pasted, including pictures, sounds, videos, entire files and folders, etc.
Why would you do this?
The core idea is this: Sometimes you might want to move or duplicate a piece of text (to make a backup copy, make a spare copy to work on, start a new draft, etc.), but manually retyping it is impractical or time-consuming. In those situations, Cut, Copy & Paste can save you a lot of time and effort and avoid any typos. They effectively make the computer do the typing for you.
Here's an overview of Cut, Copy & Paste using keyboard shortcuts, which are probably the most consistent and reliable (and least visible) ways to employ these functions. See the following sections for more details about some of these steps.
  1. The process starts when you look at your Source, and you realize that you want to copy or move some (or all) of its text to another place. Your Source might be an email message, a document, a PDF file, a website, etc.
  2. Recognize whether Copy & Paste (or Cut & Paste) is a good choice for your situation. If the text that you want to duplicate (or move) is short and simple, then you could simply write it down and then manually type it in to that second location. However, if that text is too long or complicated for you to do that easily, Cut, Copy & Paste is probably the better choice.
  3. Highlight (or select) the portion of the text that you want to Copy (or Cut). For example, you might click and drag through that portion of the text using your mouse. If you want to highlight all of the text, use Ctrl-A on your keyboard (Command-A on Macintosh), to do "Select All."
  4. Perform the Copy (or Cut) command. To Copy, use Ctrl-C (Command-C on Macintosh), which copies the highlighted text (leaving the Source unchanged) onto the "clipboard," which is a special holding area in the computer for this purpose. To Cut, use Ctrl-X (Command-X on Macintosh) which removes the highlighted text from the Source and places it on the (invisible) clipboard. Both Copy and Cut replace the previous contents of the clipboard.
  5. Go to your Destination, the place where you want to deposit a copy of the text from the clipboard. This might be an email message, document, part of a form you're filling out on a website or in a PDF file, etc. It must be editable, i.e., you must be able to type text into it, since that's essentially what Paste will do.
  6. Pick the spot in your Destination where you will want to Paste in your text. If the Destination already has text in it, click carefully to place the insertion point (the blinking vertical line) where you will Paste in your text. If your Destination is empty, just click anywhere in it to get the insertion point.
  7. Perform the Paste command. Use Ctrl-V (Command-V on Macintosh), which inserts the text from the clipboard into the Destination at the insertion point in a similar way to your having typed it in manually.
Metaphorically, you can think of this process as putting (Copy or Cut) some soup (text) from one bowl (the Source) into a spoon (the clipboard), and then pouring it (Paste) from that spoon into another bowl (the Destination).
Keep reading for more details on the process of using Cut, Copy, & Paste, as well as some of its limitations.
Using keyboard shortcuts effectively
Note that "Ctrl-C" ("Command-C" on Macintosh) means that you would:
  • Hold down the "Ctrl" (control) key on your keyboard (command key on Macintosh).
  • Still holding down Ctrl (command key on Mac), tap and release the letter "C" key.
  • Release the Ctrl key (command key on Mac).
In other words, don't try to hit the Ctrl and "C" keys simultaneously (command and "C" keys on Mac). This is just like the way you would type a capital "C" using Shift-C.
If you don't like to use keyboard shortcuts, here are some alternatives that are more visible but may not be available (or easy to find) in all programs:
  • You could right-click (control-click on Macintosh) to display a special pop-up menu in which you would then click Cut, Copy, Paste, and Select All.
  • If the program that you're using has a menu bar (a row at the top of the window or screen with "File," "Edit," etc.), you would click "Edit," and then in the menu that appears you would click Cut, Copy, Paste, or Select All as needed.
  • If the program that you're using has visible buttons or icons in the window or toolbar that represent the Cut, Copy, & Paste functions, then you would click those.
Step 2: Recognize whether Copy & Paste (or Cut & Paste) is a good choice for your situation
In order to Copy:
  • You must be able to highlight (select) some text in the Source. Some Sources don't permit that, e.g., some websites and PDFs files are specifically designed to prevent you from highlighting anything.
In order to Cut:
  • You must be able to highlight (select) some text in the Source,
  • And the text in the Source also needs to be editable, since Cut will change the Source by removing the highlighted text. In other words, you cannot use Cut with Sources which you cannot edit, e.g., website content, PDF files, emails you've already sent or received, etc., whereas you can use Cut in regular (editable) documents, text files, the fields of a form on a website or in a PDF file, email drafts that you've composed but have not yet sent, etc.
Step 3: Highlight (or select) the portion of the text that you want to Copy (or Cut)
While you can highlight any amount of text in your Source, your selection has to be a contiguous portion of text within a single area. Some Sources have multiple, separate areas of text, only one of which can have a selection at any given time. For example:
  • An email message typically has separate areas for To, CC, BCC, Subject, and Body.
  • A form on a website or in a PDF file can have multiple text fields for you to fill in, for example, first name, last name, street address, phone number, etc.
  • A word processing document has the main body of text, and sometimes it can also have separate areas for its header and footer (text that appears at the top and bottom of each page), as well as footnotes, endnotes, comments, etc.
Step 4: Perform the Copy (or Cut) command
Typically, Copy gives you no visible indication that you've done it successfully, you'll just have to have faith that it worked and keep going. A few newer programs display "Copied!" on the screen, but they are in the vast minority.
On the other hand, you can always tell that Cut occurred, because the text that you highlighted visibly disappears from the Source immediately.
Step 6: Pick the spot in your Destination where you will want to Paste in your text
You might need to "make room" for the text that you're about to Paste in, for example, by typing in a space, or a blank line or two.
Step 7: Perform the Paste command
Only one area at a time: Similar to highlighting text in the Source, when you Paste in your text it can only get inserted into one area of the Destination, so if you have multiple areas that you wanted to transfer (e.g., the From, To, Subject, etc. in an email), you would have to separately highlight, Copy, and Paste each area from the Source into the Destination.
Fix up: After Pasting in your text, you might need to add a space or a blank line, or fix up the punctuation, capitalization, quotation marks, font and other formatting, etc.
Rubber stamp: Note that the Paste function does not empty out the clipboard, so once you've Copied or Cut some text onto the clipboard, you can use Paste again and again if you want, to insert the same text into many different places in the Destination (or into many different Destinations), similar to using a rubber stamp with paper documents.
One piece of text: The clipboard can only hold one piece of text at a time. Copying or Cutting something else will replace what's in the clipboard with new text.
Clipboard history: Some programs have their own enhanced clipboards that remember previous items that you've put on the clipboard, and you can also get special "multi-clipboard" software for your Windows computer or Macintosh that essentially adds that ability to every program on your computer.
While very convenient and productive, such software can also be a security risk, especially if you Copy & Paste confidential data like passwords, credit card numbers, social security numbers, etc., so it's a good idea to "clear" your multi-clipboard after doing that, or limit the number of recent pieces of text it keeps in its history.
Confusing formatting: If both your Source and Destination support text formatting (i.e., they both let you use a variety of fonts, sizes, styles, paragraph spacing, margins, etc.), then when you Paste, your text may get inserted into the Destination preserving its original formatting from the Source (a literal copy), or it may land using the surrounding formatting from the Destination (an adjusted copy). Unfortunately, the software that you're using may do this one way when you might prefer the other.
For example, if you Copy some text from a 12-point Helvetica document and then Paste it into an 18-point Geneva document, depending on the program you're using that text might arrive still in Helvetica (formatting unchanged from the Source) or it might "blend in" and arrive using the Geneva font (using the Destination's formatting).
Some programs like Microsoft Word and Outlook have a separate Paste Special function, which gives you some control over this.
Unable to Paste: Occasionally a Destination might specifically prevent you from using Paste. This includes forms on some websites that insist that you manually type certain information like passwords, verifying your email address, bank or credit account numbers, etc.
When you Shutdown or Restart your computer, the contents of the clipboard are discarded.
Mobile devices
You can also avoid retyping things by using Cut, Copy, & Paste on an iPhone, iPad, or Android. The process is very similar, but the way you select text is a bit different (and a little trickier) than on a computer, involving different "gestures" like tapping-and-dragging, double-tapping, and more, depending on the situation.
You can also get multi-clipboard software for your mobile device. They're typically built into alternate keyboard programs, e.g., Microsoft SwiftKey, Gboard (Google Keyboard), etc.
The ability to keep a history of things you've copied, even after you've powered your device off and on again, is very convenient but it's also a security risk, as described above.
Cut, Copy, & Paste with data that isn't text
Depending on the program that you're using, if you're working with other kinds of data, including pictures, sounds, videos, entire files and folders, etc., if you can highlight (or select) a portion of your data, you can probably use Cut, Copy, & Paste.

For example when working with pictures (images, photos, drawings, etc.), clicking and dragging usually highlights a rectangular (2-dimensional) portion of your image, and Select All highlights the entire image. You can then Copy (or Cut) that selection to the clipboard, and then go to an existing picture (or a new blank one, or a word processing document) and Paste it in.
Most sound and video editors display their data on a horizontal (1-dimensional) "timeline," in which you can similarly select a portion, and then Copy (or Cut), and then Paste somewhere else.
There's nothing wrong with writing something down, going somewhere else, and then typing it back in, but for large or complicated pieces of text, Cut, Copy, & Paste can be a much more efficient and thorough approach, as long as you keep its limitations in mind.
Where to go from here
Where X might be "windows" or "macintosh" or iphone" or "ipad" or "Android":
How to contact me:
phone: (617) 484-6657

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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