Tip of the Week #1: That function key most Office users don’t know about

Ewan Dalton

24 Function Keys on IBM terminal keyboard

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Introducing Tip of the Week

Welcome to the first Tip of the Week article here at OnMSFT! I have recently joined the team having recently retired from Microsoft after more than 25 years. Since December 2009, I’ve been writing a weekly email that went out to thousands of ‘softies internally, and eventually made its way online and to LinkedIn. The Tips have always been about sharing something that readers might not have seen or known about previously, usually to do with Windows & Office, browsing and mobile. The tone is slightly irreverent and Tips are often peppered with links to funny or impudent links to other stuff, as well as referencing content that expands on a topic.

I’m delighted to bring the format here, and would love to hear your feedback or even ideas for future tips that we could share!

Every power user loves a function key or keyboard shortcut, right? Windows 11 has plenty of them, from the simple and venerable (Win+L to lock your computer, for when you’re in a shared space) to the more modern and esoteric (Win+Alt+B, to turn HDR on and off). Next time your laptop inexplicably has a blank screen yet you can tell it’s still running as the keyboard lights are still working, you could try force-restarting the graphics driver by pressing Win+CTRL+SHIFT+B. Yes, I bet you won’t remember that for the one time in a blue moon that you actually need it.

Press ALT in an Office app to see what keys you could combine to invoke menu commandsOf course, many apps have lots of shortcuts too – press the ALT key on its own in Microsoft Office apps and you’ll see, next to menu options, which key you could combine with ALT to invoke that command. Note that in the Quick Access Toolbar at the top, the commands can be started by pressing ALT+number, corresponding to each icon’s position in the toolbar.

A similar principle applies in all kinds of other places, too – in Outlook and Teams, for example, CTRL+number will jump to the nth option on the vertical bar to the left side (so unless you’ve reordered things, in Outlook, CTRL+1 normally willl give you mail, CTRL+2 calendar etc).

24 Function Keys on IBM terminal keyboard
T. Cowart – Flickr

Fn Function Keys

Of course, shortcut keys were predated with physical function keys, 12 of which are typically arrayed along the top of a standard PC keyboard. IBM used to have 1 or 2 rows of 12 “Programmable Function” or PF keys on their mainframe terminals, and applications could assign regular functions to each – which explains why the Function keys made it across to PCs, and even some of the default functions carried over – F1 for Help, for example.

Some function key combos go back to the very early days of Windows – like ALT+F4 to close an app or CTRL+F4 to close a window (other combinations were considered).

Function Key on Surface LaptopFunction Key lockFunction keys are a bit less relevant in the modern era since more users interact with mouse or touch than relying on shortcut keys, and lots of laptops have dispensed with dedicated function keys, preferring instead (like the Surface line) to double up F1-F12 with other keys dedicated to things like volume or screen brightness control.

And of course, when you want to use the actual Fn key, you need to make sure the Fn lock button is lit up on Surface laptops and the likes.

Still, if you can suffer the need to remember to enable Fn rather than turn the volume up, F4 on its own has a long and yet surprisingly little-known history in some Office applications – it repeats the last thing you did, if possible. It’s most useful for formatting tasks, like applying a specific color to a selected cell in Excel, or setting a style on a block of text in Word, especially when you need to repeatedly apply the same thing throughout a document.

Repeat the last command

Use cases for the “repeat command” function might be a little niche – if you wanted to make text bold or delete a line, it’s pretty straightforward to do it with other keyboard shortcuts, and it’s possible to use the Format Painter feature to apply the style of one block of text to another. Excel font dialogBut things like setting the same table style, or removing entire lines in Excel (for which there is no single-shot function or shortcut… there are several steps to invoke it and if you were taking out the occasional line throughout a large sheet, it can be pretty laborious).

Also, the “last command” is literally that – so if you made 2 or 3 changes to a shape or a block of content, then it would only apply the last one… unless all the changes were in a single dialog, like the Font dialog in Word (where you’d set numerous options on choice of font, size, color etc) or Format Cells dialog in Excel – if you apply a set of designs and Apply them, that will collectively count as a single action so F4 can be used to repeatedly assign them to whatever else you select elsewhere in the document.