If you've been around computers for any period of time, you may think the cut and paste operation is child's play. But there's more to it than meets the eye, and a history behind it that's fascinating.
Cut and paste, and the related copy and paste, have been an essential part of computer-aided writing from the time that dedicated word processors and then word processing software on personal computers began replacing electric typewriters in the '70s and '80s. Being able to move or copy selections of text made writing and editing text a great deal more efficient.
The term "cut and paste" actually precedes the digital age. It originally referred to the manuscript-editing practice of physically cutting a paragraph or paragraphs with a pair of scissors from a page and physically pasting them to a different location.
With personal computing software, cut and paste didn't become standardized until the advent of graphical user interfaces, led by the Apple Macintosh, which was introduced in 1984. Apple, as with much else, copied the cut and paste operations developed at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.
The Mac exposed many people to the now familiar keyboard shortcuts of holding down a modifier key and pressing X for cutting the highlighted text (removing it), C for copying it (keeping the original text in place), V for pasting it, and Z for undoing what you did. These four keys are all located next to one another at the left end of the bottom row of standard QWERTY keyboards. Whereas the Mac today uses Command as the modifier key, Microsoft Windows uses Control.
Using these keyboard shortcuts provides a faster way of performing these operations than pulling down the Edit menu and selecting the respective procedure. An even faster way of cutting and pasting with Windows, which many people don't know about, is continuing to use the mouse after selecting the text by pressing the right mouse button. The first three options presented in the pop-up menu that will appear on the screen are Cut, Copy, and Paste. A still faster way to move text is by simply dragging selected text to its new location using your mouse; pressing the Control key while dragging copies it.
Shortcuts for selecting text include double-clicking on a word, triple-clicking on a paragraph, and placing the cursor at the spot where you want to begin the selection, clicking inside the scroll bar to the right to reach the spot where you want to end the selection, and pressing the Shift key as you click on that spot.
Today's standardized world of graphical user interfaces makes it possible to copy text not only from within a single document but also from one document to another, even if the documents were created by completely different programs. Within Windows, holding down the Alt key and hitting Tab is a quick way to switch among open programs.
Typically when you copy and paste text between programs, the text retains the formatting of the source document instead of matching the formatting of the destination document. If you want to prevent this from happening using Microsoft Word (other word processors have similar procedures), you can pull down the Paste Special command from the Edit menu and select Unformatted Text. Or you can first paste the text to Notepad and then copy and paste it to your destination document. Both procedures also eliminate any graphics you may have copied.
One common use for copying text this way is saving to your own hard drive text you see on a webpage (you can't cut text from the web). Depending on your purpose, saving text in this manner can be easier and more direct than saving entire webpages, bookmarking pages within your web browser, or using a specialized web archiving program.
Be careful, however, about reusing any text verbatim that you copy from the web. Many people erroneously believe that if they find something on the free public internet, it's also free for the taking and using. National and international copyright law, as well as plagiarism rules in business and academic settings, requires certain actions.
In a nutshell, if you reuse someone else's words, you should rephrase them into your own words unless you're quoting that person. If you reuse someone else's idea, you should give that person credit if the idea is original. General web search tools such as Google or specialized antiplagiarism programs can easily uncover copyright and plagiarism violations.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.