Underline Keyboard Shortcuts and Access Keys

MS Windows Tip


Whether you wish to be more efficient on your computer by making effective use of keyboard shortcuts, or if you are creating Dragon step-by-step or advanced scripting commands, understanding Windows’ accelerator keys (aka underline keyboard shortcuts) and access keys is exceptionally useful.

You may have wondered at the reason behind the underlined letters of a program’s menu items and dialogue box options. You may have further wondered why sometimes these underlined letters are visible, and other times not. And finally you may have even wondered why some applications provide underlined letters, and others do not.

What Is It?

These underlined letters in menus and dialog box options correspond with the keyboard keys you must press in conjunction with the < Alt > key (one of the modifier keys, similar to the < Shift > and < Ctrl > keys) in order to emulate mouse clicking of the same menu item or dialog box option.

For instance, on the file menu item of Microsoft Outlook, the letter “F” is underlined. In order to drop this menu down, click the word “File” with the mouse, or use the keyboard and press the combination of < Alt + f >. This simulates the same results.

If you are using a computer by hand, and your hands are already on the keyboard, you might as well use the keyboard shortcut to drop the menu down rather than reaching for the mouse, moving the mouse pointer over the word “File“, and then left clicking the mouse.

If you are creating Dragon commands, it is useful to know what the keyboard shortcut is in order to simulate the pressing of this menu item.

Menus, Submenus and Dialog Box Options

The < Alt + (keyboard key) > combination is only required for main menu items and dialog box options. Submenus only require you to press the actual keyboard key.

In the example screenshot below of a MS Outlook menu and expanded submenu, press < Alt + t > to simulate clicking the Tools menu. Press < e > to simulate clicking Send/Receive.

In the example screenshot below of MS Word’s Paragraph dialog box options, press < Alt + n > to click the Line spacing drop down menu. Likewise, press < Alt + m > to click the Mirror indents checkbox.

MS Word’s Menu

MS Word 2007/2010’s Menu is atypical in that at a glance, underlined letters are not visible, leading you to believe that MS Word does not respond to < Alt + (keyboard key) > pressing. This is not the case at all, but it is unusual.

Press the < Alt > key alone and boxed letters and numbers will appear next to coinciding menu items. In the screenshot below, pressing the < Alt > key will reveal the following main menu shortcuts. Press the < h > key to reveal the Home menu’s submenu, or the < n > key to reveal the Insert menu’s submenu.

As outlined above with submenus, press individual keys to click their corresponding submenu item. Press < n> to click the number submenu. Press < fn > (these two letters must be pressed in rapid succession (Dragon will have no problems with this if you are creating a custom command to press two keyboard keys successively) to click the main font dialog box.

To recap, in MS Word 2007/2010, press the < Alt > to activate the main menu items, followed by the desired letter or number to simulate clicking that main menu item. This will in turn provide you with submenu letters and numbers, with which you need only press the corresponding letter or number key(s).

How to Activate

Most computer setups are default with Windows’ accelerator keyboard shortcuts and access keys active/visible. Be aware that pressing the < Alt > key in a window will provide you with the underlined letters whether or not this feature is active. As with MS Word 2007/2010, you need only press the desired corresponding main menu letter or number to enter that main menu item’s submenu. Press the < Alt > key a second time to deactivate the revealed letters and numbers of the main menu items.

If the accelerator keyboard shortcuts are not typically visible, follow these pathways to enter the dialog box to activate the option.

Windows 7 / Vista

Go to Start> Control Panel> All Control Panel Items> Ease of Access Center> Make the keyboard easier to use

Check Underline keyboard shortcuts and access keys or press < Alt + n >.


[click image for larger view]

Windows XP

Go to Start> Control Panel> Display Settings> Appearance> Effects

Check Hide underlined letters for keyboard navigation until I press the Alt key option

No Underlined Letters

Some programs do not provide you with < Alt + (keyboard key) > functionality. This, I’m afraid, is just exceptionally poor programming and I will spare you my litany of condemnation where bad programmers are concerned.

If you are lucky, pressing < F10 > will activate the first item in a main menu and thereafter you may press the appropriate arrow keys to navigate through these main menu items. Press the < > or > keys to select main menu items. Once you’ve selected the desired main menu item, press the < Enter > key to view its submenu, and then the <  > or > keys to open its subsubmenu and so on. This information is vital for those creating Dragon commands in a program that defies Windows API standards.

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13 Responses to Underline Keyboard Shortcuts and Access Keys

  1. Tim B says:

    Thanks! This cleared things up nicely. I’ve always wondered how to accomplish this, new there was a solution, but never took the 10 seconds to find out; until now.

    Thanks again!

  2. pardeep Kumar says:

    if we select Underline keyboard shortcuts and keyboard keys. a border will appear on each label click. how we avoid it.

  3. dan kayser says:

    What happened in Access 2010 to the ability to place an ampersand before a letter in a caption of a command button to activate the command using Alt + “letter”?

    • AH says:

      @ dan kayser : my Access 2010 does still provide accelerators by inserting ampersand at front of a button’s caption.

    • DK says:

      If the ampersand gives you the underlined letter, but using that key with Alt doesn’t work, try moving the button to the Header section of the form.

  4. Khalakuzzaman Apon says:

    Thanks a lot… I knew something which I really wanted to know…. 🙂

  5. michael says:

    Very helpful, thanks

  6. E Prince says:

    Thanks, helpful. In particular, could never figure out that “alt” key was not required for some secondary selections, after using to open the primary menu; Probably would not have stumbled on that nuance by myself, for some time.

  7. Mike says:

    Old thread but I can’t find any to help, and this is touching on the points..
    Outlook 2010. Alt will display the top level boxes as expected.
    Alt+V gets me to View, with secondary shortcut letters in boxes, and the menu for View with underlined letters.
    I can access the boxed letters, but Date just has the underlined D, and I cannot access through any means I have tried. Keeping Alt pressed, just pressing D, Ctl+D, Shift+D, left and right sides for keys, etc.

    Any thoughts..? Thanks

  8. victor batorsky says:

    You have the history of the underlined letters back ward. You wrote: “in order to emulate mouse clicking”. Wrong. The other way around. Before there were mouse keys and (F)unction keys (1-12) and all the other buttons on the computer keyboard, computer terminals were first equipped with QWERTY boards. The actions that later became mouse function and Function Keys, e.g. F1 for (help, which originally was F3 in Word Perfect) were performed by using the Alt key and hitting actual QWERTY board keys. Drag and drop is the only function a mouse can perform that the Alt keys cannot. D&D was originally performed with lock start, lock end, opy, aste, the delete the original block.

    • I never discussed the history as it’s well beyond the intent and scope of this post. I simply stated that one may click a menu item or use the Alt key + specified letter to perform the same function.

      I have a very specific audience in mind for this article and this is what they will understand.

      Thank you, however, for the history lesson.

  9. victor batorsky says:

    typo: your mail messed up my command explanation: Block start, block end, Copy, Paste, then delete the original block