Copying text from text clippings: Can you or can you not?

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
February 26th, 2006 • 12:32 pm

It’s very easy to create a text clipping in Mac OS X. Just select a block of text in (pretty much) any application, click on the block and hold the mouse button down for half a second, and then drag the block to the desktop.

When you release the mouse button, Mac OS X creates a small file with the “.textClipping” extension and the name of the file itself consists of the first few words of the text clipping.

What is a text clipping exactly? It is, as far as one can tell, a small text file containing a plain text version of the block of text you’ve just dragged. (The text is stripped of its formatting if it had any.)

But it’s a bit of a weird thing, this text clipping file. Even though it appears to be a plain text file, you cannot open it with Mac OS X’s text editor TextEdit. If you drag a text clipping onto the TextEdit icon, Mac OS X opens a document window in TextEdit with the title of the text clipping file, but… the window is empty.

No, if you want to open this text clipping file, you have to double-click on it, and then Mac OS X opens the file in a window in the Finder itself. In other words, a text clipping file cannot be opened by any application other than the Finder. And the Finder opens it in a window that is not a Finder window. (It has no toolbar and obviously cannot be used to browse your file/folder hierarchy.)

The strangeness does not stop here. If you cannot open this text clipping file in any other application, then obviously if you want to use the text that it contains, you are going to have to copy it.

The trouble is, once you’ve opened the text clipping file in the Finder and the text clipping window is the foreground window… the “Copy” command in the “Edit” menu is disabled!

In other words, it looks like you cannot copy the text in the Finder itself! All you can do is read it. Mmm.

In actual fact, it turns out that, even though the “Copy” command in the “Edit” menu is disabled, the text clipping’s text can be copied. All you have to do is… press command-C—which is the shortcut for the “Copy” command, of course.

In other words, in order to copy the text of a text clipping, you have to use the keyboard shortcut for a menu command that appears to be disabled. Don’t ask me in what way this all makes sense from a user interface point of view. I have absolutely no idea.

It gets even worse. If you press command-C when the text clipping window is the foreground window, then Mac OS X copies the entire text of the text clipping to the Clipboard. But if, before pressing command-C, you try to select a portion only of the text in the text clipping window, it looks like it doesn’t work. No matter how much you click and drag, no selection can be created in the text clipping window. Or can it?

In actual fact, even though Mac OS X does not actually draw the selection, it is there! For example, if you double-click on a single word in the text clipping, and then press command-C, and then switch to another application and press command-V to paste the contents of the Clipboard, Mac OS X just pastes the single word that you thought you weren’t able to select!

Same thing if you click and drag to create a selection. You cannot see anything (Mac OS X doesn’t draw a selection block with your preferred highlighting colour), but the selection block actually exists invisibly, and you can copy it with command-C, etc.

This is utterly absurd. Either it works or it doesn’t work. But how can it work invisibly? With the shortcut for a disabled menu command? Hello? Apple? Is anybody there? Or is the Mac OS X interface put together by a team of aliens from another planet with infrared vision?

4 Responses to “Copying text from text clippings: Can you or can you not?”

  1. danridley says:

    It’s not actually a text file; it is in fact a zero-KiB file, which suggests the text is stored in the resource fork.

    The window behaves in exactly the same way as the “Show Clipboard” command, which as far as I can tell only appears in Finder.

    I think this is a bit of the Mac OS 7 interface imperfectly grafted onto an OS X beta by aliens from another planet with infrared vision, and ignored ever since.

  2. danridley says:

    Okay, you got me Googling, cause I was quite curious about these files. It turns out the textclipping file is essentially a drag-and-drop proxy for the contents. If you drag and drop the unopened file into an application, it acts like you’re directly dragging and dropping text (you get the I-beam cursor; it inserts the text where you drop; etc).

    What’s more, if you drag and drop the clipping this way, it isn’t just plain text — it will preserve fonts, images, etc; all of which can’t be viewed in the Finder’s little viewer window.

    TextEdit will receive these drops, as will Word and TextMate. That’s all I’ve tried.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for the research :). More weirdness: If you double-click on a text clipping to open it in the Finder, then press command-C, then go to TextEdit and press command-V, you get… a text clipping file icon!

    I understand about the text clipping just being effectively an intermediate stage in the drag-and-drop process—but since that intermediate stage takes the shape of an actual file, it should at least behave in an intuitive fashion as a file in the Mac OS X environment. There’s nothing about text clippings per se that says that the only acceptable way to use them is to drag-and-drop them onto existing document windows. Once text clippings have been created, they have effectively left the drag-and-drop loop and are open to use and abuse by Mac OS X users :).

    And there’s no reason why the Finder shouldn’t show the styled text if it is indeed still styled (as it appears to be).

  4. Evan Gross says:

    Yep, I discovered these bizarre things a while ago. Seems like a case of clipping windows in the Finder simply not being finished (or tested??). Every major OS release it gets a tad better, but never quite there…(the UI that is, the clippings themselves seem to have always worked).

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