Windows cut, copy, and paste

A Windows clipboard can be thought of as a holding place for something that exists on your system. For example, it can hold a snippet of text, the names of on or more files, or a graphic image like a screenshot. This article is about moving things in and out of this holding place. First, a few terms.

To copy something means you are not going to alter or remove the original text, files, or graphics; you merely copy them into the clipboard. To cut on the other hand means that your intent is to remove the source material, either before or after pasting it. To paste means to insert the contents of the clipboard into whatever currently has focus, be that a document or a folder like My Documents. If my definition of the terms seems a little vague, that is partly because cut, copy, and paste are concepts that apply to a variety of situations. The mechanics are going to vary somewhat by what it is you are cutting, copying, or pasting, and even perhaps the application you are using. Bear with me, and hopefully this will become clearer to you.

Let’s start with an example using text. Create a new document in Wordpad, Microsoft Word, or any other text-oriented application and type a few lines of text. Now you need to select some text. To do so you can hold down the left mouse button while dragging the mouse pointer across the text. In many cases, you can also put your cursor at one end of the text and hold down the Shift key, then press the arrow keys to select the text. Once the text is selected, we want to copy the text to the clipboard. In many cases, there will be an Edit menu with options to Copy, Cut, and Paste. Choose Copy. If there is no Edit menu, there is a Windows standard equivalent, which is to hold down the Ctrl key while you press the C key. This is often referred to as using Ctrl+C, where the first key is held while the second key is pressed. This method will generally work even when the application does not provide any other means to copy anything to the clipboard.

Now move your cursor to some other point in the document, like the very end. If you have an Edit menu, you should now be able to choose Paste, or use Ctrl+V and the text you copied will magically appear. Note that you can perform the paste many times if you like; the contents of the clipboard remain there indefinitely, typically until replaced by another copy or cut.

Now select some more text. This time, after selecting the text, use the Edit menu and choose Cut, or use Ctrl+X. Your text will disappear! This highlights the difference between copy and cut – cut removes the original selection. Pasting the text without changing your current position in the document will paste the text back in, essentially undoing your cut. If you position your cursor where you want to put the text and then paste, this is effectively moving the text from one spot to another. As with the copy operation, you can paste the text you cut many times.

Using this with graphics is very similar. While programs like Microsoft Paint, included with Windows, will let you select graphics and copy or cut them to the clipboard, copying what is on the screen is perhaps a more common example. Look for a key labeled PrtScn or perhaps spelled out as Print Screen. When you tap this key it will copy the contents of whatever is on your screen to the clipboard. If you hold the Alt key when you tap PrtScn, you will copy just the contents of the active windows.

Now open a program that lets you use images, e.g. Microsoft Paint. If present, use the Edit menu and choose Paste or use Ctrl-V. You should now see in your document a copy of what was on your screen.

These same concepts can apply to many different bits and pieces of documents. For example, you can select a range of cells in Microsoft Excel and paste them into a Word document, or select part of a picture you downloaded from your camera and paste it into a Microsoft Outlook email to send to someone. You can also do this with files or folders. When you select then cut or copy the files or folders, the names of your selection are held in the clipboard. If you do a copy, the original files/folders will remain; a paste will move the files/folders. Note that unlike text or graphics, cutting files will not make the originals disappear. I presume this is because it would be alarming to see all your files disappear, and the sheer size of a file or an entire folder’s contents could be much more than the clipboard can hold.

I hope this was useful to you. Personally I think the clipboard is one of the most useful features for any operating system like Windows, and I find it indispensable.

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