Customizing the Cocoa Text System

Version 0.8
by Jacob Rus
Monday, 20 March 2006

Apple’s Cocoa text system is a complicated beast, but also extremely flexible, and with a bit of work, it can be molded to match many working styles. This how-to covers the 2 major ways of customizing the text input system: Default key bindings, and for still more control, input managers.

I’m writing this guide because nothing like it currently exists. There is incredible room for flexibility in customizing the Cocoa text environment, but most users—even power-users—have no idea of the available options. This is mostly because Apple’s documentation is 1) aimed at developers, and 2) often incomplete or ambiguous. Most users have no idea that they can look at a file which describes all of the shortcuts on the system, and that they can easily add their own shortcuts, or replace existing ones with differing functionality.

For instance, one of the most common complaints from new Windows and Linux/Unix switchers is that many of the shortcuts they are used to, such as using the Home and End keys to move to the beginning, respectively end, of a line or document, don’t work as they expect in OS X.

For new users, almost every text box you use is a Cocoa text box (or close enough to act the same as far as we’re concerned) — Safari web form boxes, the text field in iChat for sending new messages, the documents in Pages or TextEdit, the email composer in Mail, etc. Note: Some text boxes are not Cocoa however, so the tricks in this article still aren’t completely universal. Notably, Microsoft Word, Adobe applications, AppleWorks, and the text fields in Camino and Firefox won’t work with this hint.

I expect that all users of OS X can get something out of this guide. I’m starting with the basics, so that new users, unfamiliar with the terminal and the intricacies of OS X can be brought up to speed. But even the most experienced users should hopefully learn something from this article; I know I learned several new nifty things while writing it.

Disclaimer: it is possible, when mucking around with the text system, to send applications messages they aren’t expecting. This can cause them to crash. As long as you stick to standard text selectors, you should be fine, but I’m not responsible if your program crashes because of a binding you add.


Before delving too deeply into the intricacies of the Cocoa text system, it helps to understand some programmer jargon.

Many of these terms crop up in the venerable Emacs editor, so reading about them in the Emacs context can be enlightening: Buffer, Key Bindings, Mark, Kill

Existing (Default) Functionality

Most users of Mac OS X, even long-time Apple geeks, know only a fraction of the available text system shortcuts. This is a tragedy, as they are consistent across all applications which use the Cocoa text system, including TextEdit, Mail, iChat, Safari, and countless third-party applications.

Simple Text Insertion

One thing every user knows is that when a plain letter is typed (assuming the input method in use matches the keyboard), that letter is inserted into a selected text box. When the shift key is held down, letters are capitalized, and symbol keys input the second symbol shown on them. For instance ‘Shift-]’ inputs the ‘}’ character.

It is possible to see all of the possibilities using the ‘Keyboard Viewer’ palette:

Keyboard viewer--full sized Keyboard viewer--laptop

In addition, the option key, both alone and in conjunction with the shift key, will change the characters inserted. So ‘Option-y’ inserts a ‘¥’ currency mark, and ‘Option-Shift-c’ inserts a capital cedilla: ‘Ç’. We can see how option affects our input options using the Keyboard Viewer:

Keyboard viewer--full sized--option key Keyboard viewer--full sized--shift+option

Users with full keyboards have a complete number pad, with an enter key (instead of return), and symbols used in arithmetic. This number pad is available to PowerBook and iBook users as well. The numlock key (Fn-F6), enables the small symbols printed at the lower right corner of powerbook keys to be input. But even more usefully, those keys can also be used as a number pad while the Fn key is held down. This is great for typing lots of numeric data, and also comes in handy when playing games that allow vertical, horizontal, and diagonal movement via the number pad:

Keyboard viewer--laptop--function key

Of course, there are a number of standard actions that the above pictures don’t show. For instance, when you type ‘Command-left’, the insertion point moves to the beginning of the current line. Also, OS X has a fairly large number of unix/emacs bindings built in.

The complete list of these extra commands takes up too much space for this page, so I’ve made them into a separate document.

Default key bindings

OS X has three main files which specify the key bindings used by Cocoa applications:




which contain, respectively, the default ‘built-in’ key bindings, system-wide custom keybindings, and a user’s personalized key bindings. Don’t edit the built-in /System/Library/ file, as this could seriously hose your machine. Note that as usual, personalized bindings override the built-in standards.

If the DefaultKeyBinding.dict file doesn’t exist, don’t worry. Simply making a KeyBindings folder in ~/Library, and then adding a new text file should do the trick.

File Format:

This file is a normal Property List, which can be created either with a text editor, such as TextWrangler, Smultron, or TextMate, or with Apple’s Property List Editor, which is installed with the developer tools. Property lists are pervasive in OS X, and are used for all sorts of configuration files, and preferences. Any file which has a .plist or .dict extension is a property list. Every application has an info.plist file inside of it which tells OS X what types of files that application can handle. Smart folders (.savedSearch files) are property lists. The defaults command, which can be run from the terminal, is a quick way to edit single items in a property list.

There are two types of property lists, old-style NeXT text files, and newer XML formatted files. I will use the old-style plists in this how-to, because they are easier to read and understand; they are more compact, with less distracting markup.

The NeXT property list format is a file format that can describe, using plain text, all of the objects used in Cocoa programs. We specifically care about 3 types: ‘strings’, ‘lists’, and ‘dictionaries’:

Every property list has a root dictionary object, which can contain sub-objects. A simple plist file might look like:

    /*  ** THIS IS A COMMENT: **
     * Notice that each line in the dictionary has a 'key' string,
     * and a 'value', which can be a string, a list, or another
     * dictionary.

    "My String" = "Hey there!";

    "My List" = ("first string", "second string", "final string");

    "My Dictionary" = {
        "Sub-string A" = "This is a string inside a dictionary";
        "Sub-list B" = ("This is a list", "inside a dictionary");

This property list has three key-value pairs: a string, a list, and a dictionary.

The format of DefaultKeyBinding.dict

The DefaultKeyBindings.dict file is fairly straight-forward. It is a normal property list, which as keys, uses the requested key bindings, and as values uses the commands they should execute. For instance, I might want the letter a to not type ‘a’, but instead insert a tab. If I put the following in my DefaultKeyBinding.dict, then all Cocoa apps launched afterwards will insert a tab key instead of an a:

    /* This will make all a's turn to tabs.  Beware. */
    "a" = "insertTab:";

How to represent bindings

But of course, if we could only bind things to letter keys, this wouldn’t really be so useful, now would it? Fortunately, Apple’s engineers made sure that every key that you could possibly ever type can be put into a binding.

The way it works is simple. For lower-case and capital letters, simply type the letter into the string. So "y" represents the ‘y’ key, while "T" represents ‘Shift-t’. For numbers and symbols, including space, the same holds. So "!" represents ‘Shift-1’, or however you type ‘!’ on your keyboard layout. To add modifier keys, add a symbol corresponding to that modifier:

"@t" = Command-t
"^t" = Control-t
"~t" = Option-t
"@^T" = Command-Control-Shift-t
"~ " = Option-space

For numbers and symbols, to add the shift key is not as easy as typing a capital letter, so $ stands for shift. Also, there is a difference between numbers above the letter keys, and numbers on the keypad. To indicate keypad keys, use #:

"@$#5" = Command-Shift-Numpad 5
"^6" = Control-6

Note: Lots of bindings with the Command key won’t work. This is done by Apple to ensure that applications can use these shortcuts for themselves, and not worry about user key bindings. Some will work, however, such as ‘Command-right arrow’.

There are still 2 limitations: First, what do we do if we want to bind a literal ‘@’ or ‘#’ symbol? We escape it! By adding a \\ before the symbol, we can avoid this. At the moment, the only way I can get ‘\’ itself to bind to anything is by writing it as ‘\U05C’.

"~\\$" = Option-$

Second, if we were limited to symbols and modifiers, we would still cut off keys like ‘delete’, ‘tab’, and ‘esc’, so any keys that aren’t already covered can be entered using their unicode values:

Unicode values for Apple non-letter keys:

Escape: \U001B
Tab: \U0009
Backtab: \U0019
Return: \U000A
Enter: \U000D
Delete: \U007F
Up Arrow: \UF700
Down Arrow: \UF701
Left Arrow: \UF702
Right Arrow: \UF703
Help: \UF746
Forward Delete:\UF728
Home: \UF729
End: \UF72B
Page Up: \UF72C
Page Down: \UF72D
Clear: \UF739
F1: \UF704
F2: \UF705
F3: \UF706
F35 \UF726
Not on Apple keyboards:
Menu: \UF735


For a complete list, including some keys that aren’t on current apple keyboards, but can still be used by OS X, see the Registry of Apple Unicode corporate-zone characters.

In general, the best way I’ve found to discover key’s escape codes is to use the free Key Codes application from Peter Maurer. The app brings up a floating palette which prints a log of all the keys typed.

More complicated bindings and actions

Of course, sometimes we wish we had more keys on the keyboard. Even with all of the modifier keys, it gets hard to keep different functionality separated, and things get confused. For this reason, it is possible to use multiple-keystroke bindings. To this end, instead of binding our first keystroke to a selector, we bind it to a dictionary, containing the second keystrokes. Emacs, the UNIX-based text editor, has many such multiple-keystroke bindings. Therefore, as an example of how this can be done, we will take Emacs bindings, and try to replicate them in Cocoa Text Widgets.

One Emacs command is ‘Control-x, u’, for ‘undo’. Another is ‘Control-x, Control-s’ for ‘save’. To add this command to our key bindings, we need to bind ‘Control-x’ to a dictionary of sub-bindings:

    /* Control-x dictionary */
    "^x  " = {
        "u"  = "undo:";          /* C-x u    =>  undo */
        "^s" = "save:";  /* C-x C-s  =>  save */

Our ‘Control-x’ parent dictionary can have several multiple-keystroke bindings associated with it. In this way, we can have whole areas of functionality given to one ‘parent’ key binding, with the resulting action to be determined by a letter. We can effectively have 4 or 5 keyboards for our bindings!

But of course, the number of bindings is not our only limitation so far. We are also limited by the range of selectors offered by the text box. We often find ourselves performing complicated actions repeatedly, and would like to invoke them with single keystroke. Mostly when this happens, Applescript, or some other programming language is the best solution. On occasion, however, the text system has enough power and flexibility to do the trick. This is because, besides single selectors, a binding can also execute a list of selectors, sequentially.

As an example, imagine that I often want to change paragraphs of text to all capital letters, but I’m tired of selecting the whole paragraph with my keyboard or mouse. I want ‘Control-Option-u to make my paragraph all uppercase, and then I want it to start a new paragraph by inserting two new lines at the end of the paragraph.

This (somewhat contrived) action can be broken into steps: 1. Select paragraph 2. Make all the letters uppercase 3. Move to the end of the paragraph 4. Insert two new lines.

We can make a plist of these directions:

    "^~u" = ("selectParagraph:",

So, with the the ability to map multiple-keystroke bindings to sets of actions that can perform complicated behaviors, what’s left?

Every time you type a key, the Cocoa text system looks for bindings, and if none are found for the key, it instead passes the keystroke along as a string input to the insertText: selector. Well, as luck would have it, Kevin Ballard, from the ##textmate IRC channel on freenode (a delightful place to chat, incidentally), found a real gem, that doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere on Apple’s website, or anywhere else: It is possible to use the insertText: selector as part of a binding, and thereby bind an arbitrary string to a keystroke. If we bind a key to a list, containing "insertText:" as one of its strings, the next string in the list will be inserted into the text field. Example:

    /* Realize that actually using this will render your a key
       amusingly useless.*/
    "a" = ("insertText:", "some fun text", "moveWordBackward:");

as a DefaultKeyBinding.dict file will make the ‘a’ key type ‘some fun text’, and then move the insertion point to the beginning of the word ‘text’, instead of the simply typing an ‘a’, as usual.

This is amazingly useful if there are some symbols or strings which must be entered on a regular basis. For instance, imagine that I sometimes need to type LaTeX Greek letters, and also sometimes need the associated unicode symbols (for alpha, beta, etc.). The following DefaultKeyBinding.dict could reduce this load considerably:

    /* Greek unicode letters */
    "^g" = {
        "a" = ("insertText:", "\U03B1");
        "b" = ("insertText:", "\U03B2");
        "g" = ("insertText:", "\U03B3");
        "d" = ("insertText:", "\U03B4"); /*
        ...                               */

    /* Greek LaTeX letters */
    "^m" = {
        "a" = ("insertText:", "\\alpha");
        "b" = ("insertText:", "\\beta");
        "g" = ("insertText:", "\\gamma");
        "d" = ("insertText:", "\\delta"); /*
        ...                               */

Now, when I type ‘Control-g, a’, ‘α’ will be inserted instead, and when I type ‘Control-m, g’, ‘\gamma’ will be inserted, etc.

It seems like this behavior is just an exception, as I haven’t found any other selectors which take an argument, but it’s a glorious exception, for which I can envision some truly creative uses.

For instance, if I want to drive some friends bonkers, I could set DefaultKeyBinding.dict up to ROT13 all of my letters, to enable “typing in code”. Or I could set it up to allow typing in leetspeak (“1337”).

Most obviously perhaps, I could bind common phrases or code snippets to simple keystrokes. This would allow systemwide text shortcuts without the need for third-party applications (though the third party applications out there, notably Peter Maurer’s Textpander, do a lot more than key bindings allow).

One binding that I made, and it’s one of my favorites, allows me to type html and xml tags with ease. I have Control-shift-h make a starting and tag pair out of the word I’ve just finished typing, and put the cursor in the middle of them. Here’s the code:

    /* This command will let Ctrl-Shift-H turn the previous word
     * into an HTML/XML opening and closing tag pair. */
    "^H" = ( "setMark:",
             "insertText:", "<",
             "insertText:", ">",
             "insertText:", "</",
             "insertText:", ">",

Finally, the possibilities for pranks on coworkers, significant others, etc. is considerable. For instance, we can set the keyboard up to malfunction on a couple of letters, maybe a ‘z’ could say “you didn’t *really* want to type that, did you?”:

    "z" = ("setMark:",
           "you didn't *really* want to type that, did you?",

Moving right along, now that we have the idea of how to form our bindings, we can get to figuring out exactly which selectors are available to us.

Usable selectors

It is hard to figure out exactly which selectors a text box, and more generally, an application, will respond to. There are a huge number of options, but they are not all documented in one place. This is partly because if one object in an application doesn’t respond to a particular message, it will pass the message along to its parent object.

Still, we can find a large number of useful selectors by searching through the documentation we can find, and testing what the selectors do. The biggest source of selectors that we might want to use is in the NSResponder class — see its documentation. Specifically, we care about the ‘Action methods’ section. Also, the documentation for NSText has some selectors we can use, and many other classes provide useful selectors as well, such as NSDocumentController and NSWindow.

Because there are so many usable selectors, I’m putting them in a separate page. Here’s a link.


I’ve put together some examples of how this could be used. To use one of these, simply rename the file to DefaultKeyBinding.dict and plop it in the ~/Library/KeyBindings folder. One of the most common uses of custom key bindings is emulating another operating system or environment, such as Windows or Emacs or BBEdit:

Beyond that, it’s possible make key bindings as pranks. That’s always fun:

Text System Defaults

Besides making our own key bindings, there are a few other nifty changes we can apply to the Cocoa text system, using the “defaults” system. Apple’s developer site tells about them. Some of these defaults are for unimplemented features, and are therefore worthless to us. There are three defaults however which are of interest to us here. They can be set using the defaults terminal command. I will show them applying globally with the -g flag, but it is possible to set them on an application by application basis, by for instance specifying instead of -g.

Input Managers

NeXT and Apple realized, when they created Cocoa, that many actions could not be foreseen by their framework developers. The key binding system is great if we want to stick within the usual sorts of operations on English text, such as transposing two letters, skipping the end of a paragraph, or upper-casing a word, and we can combine these simple actions, but sometimes to do what we want requires more.

An input manager is a piece of code which is loaded into every running Cocoa application. The purpose of an input manager is to extend the text system in ways not thought of by the application’s original programmers.

We’ve all been hearing of late about how input managers can be used for nefarious purposes, but as long as they stick to modifying the text system, they mostly stay out of trouble, and they can be incredibly useful. Two input managers in particular are quite popular:

Even Lower-Level Hacking: Keyboard Layouts

First, we haven’t seen any way to remap modifier keys so far. This can be easily accomplished using the Keyboard and Mouse preference pane. Click the ‘modifier keys’ button at the bottom of the view, and a nice sheet pops up. Mine, which I’ve set to put the keys on a Model M keyboard in the right places, with ‘Control’ where it belongs next to the ‘A’ key, looks like this:

Keyboard Pref Pane

For even finer control over the keyboard, it is possible to create customized keyboard layouts. These allow any unicode glyphs to be mapped to the keys on the keyboard, so alternate language scripts can be entered, etc. This will work across the OS, not just in Cocoa text editors, but is also a much lower-level change, which means that messing it up could be much worse. I haven’t actually ever used any layouts other than U.S. on my PowerBook, so I don’t know how easy this is. There is a pretty nice GUI editor for this from SIL called Ukelele. It has great documentation, and should be all that is needed to make custom keyboard layouts.

Finally, for the truly adventurous, it is apparently possible to go even lower-level than Ukelele, and patch the ADB codes which are registered by Apple’s USB keyboard drivers. I’m not sure exactly which versions of OS X this works with, and any hacking at this level requires a serious disclaimer, as a wrong move here could really mess up your system. But here are two links at which discuss such arcane trickery. Good luck to any who try this. This same guy (Heiko Hellweg) also made his own keyboard layout, and patched Apple’s keyboard drivers to give himself a meta key:

“I got myself the Tiger-Version of the ADB Keyboard Driver (AppleADBKeyboard-238.3.4) and hacked away in XCode. My current setup uses the obnoxious enter key (between the cursor keys and the right command key) as the alt modifier (you can do that without a compiler by just fiddling with info.plist) and turns the original alt-key on the left onto a META key that sends escape in front of every other key as long as it is pressed (for this one, i needed to replace /System/Library/Extensions/AppleADBKeyboard.kext with an actual modified binary).

“Now i can actually type ahead blindly without thinking twice. Contact me, if you are interested in using this too.”

Needless to say, I wouldn’t advise trying this, unless you know what you are doing.

TODO: Much of this list of links is still incomplete

Text Editors

Free Cocoa text editors for OS X:

Commercial Cocoa text editors:

Non-Cocoa text editors for OS X:

Apple Developer Documentation

Apple has some documentation for the key bindings, but all in all it is far from adequate, especially for regular users, as opposed to competent Objective-C hackers.

Third-party documentation

Key Bindings Editors

Input Managers

Anything I can improve? Send me an email: jacobolus AT gmail