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What Is A Shortcut Menu December 10, 2001

app-cx-mu.gif (7634 bytes)

Recent Programs List shortcut menu
Start button User shortcut menu
Start button Administrator shortcut menu
Windows Explorer shortcut menu for a picture file
Windows Explorer shortcut menu for a text file
Windows Explorer shortcut menu for a Word file

There has always been confusion by Windows users as to what is a shortcut menu (commonly called context menus [note 1]) and how do you use them. They are a very handy way to get to various command options for a particular item. You want to move/cut/copy anything - use the shortcut menu. Need to get to the properties of an item - use the shortcut menu. Shortcut menus are used in every program from Word to Explorer to the Start Menu to the Window desktop. Once you understand what shortcut menus are you will wonder why you weren't always using them. So in my humble way I will try to explain shortcut menus.

note: If you took our advice and purchased Windows 2000 Pro: The Missing Manual then read about shortcut menus at page 15

So What Are They Already!

To the right are several examples of shortcut menus for Windows XP.

A shortcut menu is first a menu. It is a very special menu. It is special because it is different for every type of item that there are shortcut menus for. A shortcut menu for a file is different than a shortcut menu for a Start Menu item. If you are working in a program like Word you can have shortcut menus that entirely different from shortcut menus for Excel.

In short a shortcut menu is a menu specific to an item. No two shortcut menus are alike. They do have similar menu names but their actions are dependant on the item.

For instance the most common menu name you will see in shortcut menus is Properties. Selecting Properties for one item will get you the properties for that item. Just like Man is different than Woman properties are different for a file in Windows Explorer than text in Word for Windows.

Another example is shortcut menus for files in Windows Explorer. On the right you have 3 shortcut menus: picture files, text files, and Word documents. They all have an item named open. The difference is that each one will open a different program. How they know which program to open is magic. No? Well knowing what program to open involves file association and that will be covered in a future article. My point is that shortcut menus are unique for each file type.

How Do I Get A Shortcut Menu?

Using The Mouse

If you use the mouse in your right hand then clicking the right button will give you the shortcut menu for the item selected. As many people tell me when I talk about Windows and shortcut menus: So that's what that button is used for! It's that simple.

If you use the mouse in your left hand then clicking the left button will give you the shortcut menu for the item selected. Have fun lefties.

Using The Keyboard

If you have a Windows keyboard (they have the Windows key) then you also have an Application key. This key will have an image of a menu with a pointer. The Application key will get you the shortcut menu for an item. It doesn't work everywhere so I generally don't use it. But give it a try. You never know.


Open Internet Explorer. With your mouse get the shortcut menu for any Web page. Now hold your pointer over a graphic on any web page and get the shortcut menu. Are they alike? No? If you travel the Web then get familiar with these two shortcut menus. You will use them many times.

ps: I tried this exercise with the Application key and it didn't give me a different shortcut menu for a graphic. Another reason I don't use the Application key.

note 1 - context defined as: The circumstances in which an event occurs. Context menus were first used with Smalltalk and was developed at Xerox PARC. Smalltalk was and is a graphical user interface (GUI) based interpreted OS that laid the foundations for such graphical OS's as Apple Macintosh, and Microsoft Windows. Smalltalk was developed in 1971.