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What Does the Control Key Do?

By Robert Grimmick
Updated May 16, 2024
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The control key, often labeled “Ctrl” or “Ctl” on a computer keyboard, is a special type of key called a modifier key that is intended to be pressed down in combination with one or more other keys. Its exact function depends on the software and operating system being used, but it most often performs common functions like saving documents, printing, and copy/paste procedures. The control key’s name comes from its original purpose in teletype machines, where it was used to control aspects of the machine’s operation.

Modifier keys, which can include shift, alt, control, and other keys depending on keyboard layout, are unique in that they are seldom used by themselves. These types of keys are instead meant to be used in conjunction with other keys on the keyboard in a technique known as a key combination. Most computer users are familiar with the shift key combination, in which the shift key is used in combination with another key to produce upper case characters. The control key also modifies the usual output of keys, but generally changes the output to a command or function rather than a special character. Holding control while pressing the “Q” key (Ctrl+Q), for example, will quit an application, while Ctrl+P can be used to print a document or webpage.

The precise impact that a control key combination has depends on the software and operating system being used. Pressing Ctrl+R in many web browsers will reload a webpage, while the same key combination in a word processing program often aligns a paragraph to the right. Common functions like saving, printing, and copy/paste are generally the same across many types of programs, while other functions may be specific to a certain program or even individual elements of that program. More complex combinations involving as many as four keys are possible; in many cases, users can customize these combinations to perform the operations they desire. In some operating systems, the control key’s usual functions are replaced by a different modifier key, while the key itself is used for a separate purpose. Users can easily find some of these combinations by consulting the manual or searching online for "keyboard shortcuts" and the name of the program.

Like many other elements of the computer keyboard, the control key is a vestige of earlier technology that has been updated and adapted to remain relevant in modern computing environments. Originally found on teletype machines, the key produced special key codes that were not printed or displayed on the screen, but controlled some aspect of the machine’s operation. Some examples of these codes, which were known as control characters, include Ctrl+J for a line feed, Ctrl+H for backspace, and even Ctrl+G to ring a bell in the terminal.

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Discussion Comments

By Markerrag — On Apr 05, 2014

@Vincenzo -- one of the ways that Microsoft managed to "speed up" inputting commands through a mouse in Windows was by adding the left key on a two-button mouse so that contextual menus can be used and common functions can be pulled up quickly that way. That is a different scheme than what Apple uses with its one button mouse setup in Mac OS.

Still, only so many commands can be loaded into a contextual menu, meaning the control key is often the fastest way to get tasks done even on a Windows system.

And, no, Linux users -- I haven't forgotten about you. The "two button" mouse scheme was also replicated in that operating system.

By Vincenzo — On Apr 04, 2014

Here's something to keep in mind -- the control key has been around since the advent of modern computers and is still a very powerful thing to learn how to use if you are after efficiency.

Here's what I mean. Let's say you are using a word processor and you want to print your document. You can navigate your way to the command to do that by pointing and clicking with your mouse, or your could simply press "control+p" to do the same thing. Knowing the control key commands can save you a lot of time.

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