Why we need consistent content-sensitive selection of text


It’s that time of year again. We’re only just recovering from the forecasts that 2017 is going to be the year that AI permeates everything, when we’re being told that this year is going to be the year that VR delivers to the masses – just like we were promised in 2015 and 2016. Before we lose ourself in someone’s wistful future, I’d like to put in a bid to get something very basic and very simple correct, consistent, and efficient, at last: selection of text.

Macs have long had a standard hierarchy of multi-click selection when working with text. Double-click (or double-tap) and you select the word under the cursor. Triple-click and you select the whole sentence. Quadruple-click and you select the whole paragraph. Some apps vary this a bit: a plain text editor aimed at programmers might offer just word (2) – line (3), perhaps, and quite a few stop short at triple-clicking.

Word processors may also effectively extend the selection, to include the leading or trailing space of a word or sentence, to save you from having to tidy up spacing after cutting or pasting.

The behaviour that I have never seen fully implemented is adjustment of the selection according to the content which has been selected.


A simple example of this is with decimal numbers. Type an example, like 87.142, into most word or text processing apps, then try selecting the whole number using just multiple clicks or taps. You often can’t: double-click and the selection stops before or after the decimal point. Triple-click and it extends too far, to encompass the whole sentence.

There are some exceptions to this, with respect to decimal numbers: I write and mark up these articles using Red Sweater’s Mars Edit, which turns out to be one of few which selects the whole of a decimal number with a double-click, as do most spreadsheets, and Nisus Writer Pro. But they fail on my next example.


A second example is of a word ending with punctuation marks, like marks) or who?, or Did he!” In each of those cases, I had to select the entire word plus the trailing punctuation marks in order to mark them up into italics. Double-click, just to select the word, and you end up with typographic trouble, in marks) who?, and he!”


My third example is the URL. Again, behaviour varies between applications (which is not how such basic features should be), but in better apps, a double-click selects the address itself apart from the preceding http:// (or whatever), but a triple-click selects too much – either the whole sentence or paragraph. You can’t select the entire URL with clicks alone.

Of course we don’t always want to select the whole of a decimal number, or trailing punctuation marks. But if I could set a default behaviour, those are three examples, together with the smart space inclusion, which I would always want, because those are actions that I use thousands of times every day. At present, thousands of times a day I end up having to drag the selection, because clicking doesn’t cut it.

Another significant change that I’d make is for selection to be more honest with the user. Where apps use smart space inclusion, they do so in secret, so you don’t actually know where the space is going to be included. Get it wrong and you can end up with two spaces at one end of a pasted section, and none at the other end. If they’re going to extend my original selection to include the leading/trailing space, then that is what should be shown as the selection, not just the single word.

I suppose getting these basic, everyday things right isn’t as sexy as AI or VR. But it’d make our work and lives a lot easier.