Left and Right mouse buttons, what’s the difference?


The right-click menu is a powerful part of modern computers.  It lets you quickly access options in Windows, Mac and Microsoft Office.  Right-click is such a basic part of personal computing that it works even on devices without a mouse!

We love ‘stupid’ questions because they’re rarely stupid at all.  Yesterday Peter was asked a wonderfully simple question that would not occur to computer nerds.

“What’s the difference between the Left and Right mouse buttons?  How do I know which one to click?”

It seems natural to anyone who uses computers a lot but for novices it’s easy to get muddled up about when and why to left click instead of right-click.  There seems to be no logic or reason to it.

The actions for left/right mouse click depend on the program but generally:

Left click – the normal or standard action.  Left Click to select.

Right click – additional or special options that apply to the selection.  Right-click often makes a menu appear with choices that apply to the current selection or program.

Right-click applies to most Windows and Mac programs including Windows, the Mac OS, Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook and any web browser.

For example, in Excel.  Left click in a cell to choose that cell and edit it.  Right-click to see the main options/features available with that cell.

Discover for yourself

Try right-clicking to see what options appear for the current location or selection.  You might discover something you didn’t realize was possible or a shortcut to a feature you use.

Windows

If your Windows computer doesn’t have a mouse, it’ll probably have a touchpad.

To see right-click menus on a mouseless Mac:

  • Tap on the touchpad with two fingers.
  • On a touchscreen ‘tap and hold’ on the screen.

Not all programs obey the ‘tap and hold’ option but Windows and Microsoft Office certainly do.

Macintosh computers

Macintosh computers will use a right-click mouse if connected but the standard Mac touchpad/TrackPad only has one button.

To see any right-click menu on a mouseless Mac:

  • Hold the Ctrl button and click the mouse button
  • Tap on the touchpad with two fingers. (if this doesn’t work, check the ‘Click or tap with two fingers’ option a System Preferences | Trackpad

Apple and Android ‘right click’

The same ‘dual click’ has been carried into systems that don’t normally have a mouse, let alone two buttons.

‘Tap and Hold’ is the right-click alternative on touch screens- tap your finger on the screen and hold it there for a second.

Apple iPhone/iPad:  Tap and Hold

Android phones and tablets:  Tap and Hold

Here’s a ‘tap and hold’ menu in Word mobile on an iPad.

Why Left?

To understand why computers work this way, we’ll delve back for a brief history of computer mice.

The original mouse was made by Douglas Engelbart working at the Stanford Research Institute.

It became clear that the mouse needed a button to select things.  Without a button you could move the pointer around the screen to a button, menu but then switch to the keyboard to take an action at the pointer.

Thus, the mouse with button was born.  You can see the button on the bottom left of the wood-grained rodent above.

The mouse was combined with a ‘point and click’ window interface at Bell Labs, part of ATT.  Their work inspired both Microsoft and Apple to make the, now familiar, window interface.  Steve Jobs was inspired/borrowed/stole the mouse from Xerox and used it in the first Mac.  Malcolm Gladwell tells the Apple Creation Myth.

Jobs and Apple started with a single mouse button and mostly sticks with the single-button concept to this day.

Microsoft moved on to embrace the two-button mouse.  The left button kept its original purpose of selecting or pointing at things.

The right button gained the fly-out menu and shortcut to extra features.

Beyond two buttons

There have been efforts to extend beyond two button mice.  There was a three-button mouse but it failed to interest people.  There are still mouse available with buttons on the side etc, mostly for gamers.

The only mouse innovation that’s partly taken hold is the scroll wheel.

We’ve had plenty of fancy mouse like this, but honestly the extra buttons and scroll wheel were rarely used.

The main mouse innovation has been the optical mouse.  Long gone is the underside ball (that you had to clean) and now mice work on almost any surface.