Right-clicking and other rodent secrets

Question: I’m new to computers, and have a question. I have a mouse that came with my computer that I just bought. It has three buttons on it. I only ever use the left-hand button. What are the others used for? –G.K.

Answer: Ah, yes, the uncharted territory of the alternate mouse buttons. Most Windows computers come with at least two mouse buttons and some come with three. Some even have a scroll wheel that also works as a middle mouse button. I’ll tell you more about the middle button in a minute.

First, let’s look at the right button. In all versions of Windows 95 and beyond (including Windows 98, ME, NT, 2000, and XP), the right mouse button has special powers, depending on where you put the mouse cursor on the Windows desktop or screen.

The right mouse button is context-sensitive. That means what it does changes based on what program you are working in, or what part of Windows your mouse cursor is pointing to.

Let’s take that right mouse button out for a test drive. Ready?

Go to an empty part of your Windows desktop, away from any of your icons, and click the right mouse button (this is called right-clicking to differentiate it from clicking which usually refers to the left mouse button). You’ll see a menu open that lists a variety of tasks:

  • The New item is of particular use. If you select New, you can create a new shortcut to a program or data file, or you can create an empty folder to put items in.
  • On that same menu, you’ll see Properties. This is a quick way to get to the Display applet in the Control Panel. Normally, to get to this, you’d have to go to the Start menu and choose Settings, then Control Panel, and then double-click on Display. With Properties in this right-click desktop menu, you cut out all those other steps. In the Display Properties window that opens, you can modify your screensaver, adjust your screen resolution, and change your desktop background (also called wallpaper, among other tasks relating to the look and feel of your Windows desktop.
  • Have your desktop icons gotten out of control, making it difficult for you to find the one you want when you want it? Right-click the desktop, and select Arrange Icons By and get them into a reasonable order.

If you right-click on the task bar at the bottom of your screen, a different menu appears. There are some commands on that menu to help you organize the program windows you have open. The Tile … commands will arrange the windows on your screen so that they use equal space. The Properties item allows customization of the taskbar and Start menu. (If you notice that the Properties item here does different things from the Properties item we got when we right-clicked on the desktop, kudos for paying attention, and remember what I said earlier about these right-click menus being context-sensitive.) Play with the different functions in these menus to understand what each one does.

One of my favorite right-button mouse tricks is using it with moving files. Go to your desktop and right-click on a file you want to move and hold the button down. Now drag the file with the button still depressed to a folder you want to move it to. Now release the right mouse button. A menu will pop-up that has options such as “move here”, “copy here”, and “create shortcut here”. It beats cutting and pasting copies of files or manually creating shortcuts.

If you work with Microsoft Word, there are some really great right-click tricks. Try highlighting some text and right-click. There are options to cut, copy, and paste, as well as change font color, type, and size. (Bonus tip: Many Microsoft applications have similar choices when you right-click in them.)

If you browse the web with Internet Explorer, try right-clicking on the web page you’re viewing. There’s an option called Add to Favorites, which is a quick way to save the web page in your Favorites menu.

If you right-click on a hypertext link on a web page, there’s an “open in new window” option. If you choose this, the linked page will open in its own window. This is one of my favorite web tricks because it’s a great way to surf news headlines and open the news stories I want to read into new windows without leaving the headline page.

In e-mail, right-clicking also works well with Outlook 97/98/2000, and Outlook Express. I’ll leave it up to you to explore those clicks. The secret to all this is to not be afraid of exploring with the right mouse button.

Finally, a quick note on the middle mouse button or the mouse scroll wheel. The scroll wheel, which is located between the right and left mouse buttons on some computer mice, can be used to scroll through windows. To make this happen, ensure the window you want to scroll in is active. If it’s not, click on any part of the window to bring it to the front of the other windows on the screen.

This scroll wheel can also be depressed, so it functions like a third (and middle) button. If you go into your Control Panel (Start > Settings > Control Panel), you’ll find a Mouse selection. Open it with a double left-click. There is normally a tab in that little program that allows you to assign a function to your middle mouse button or scroll wheel. This could be a shortcut to your help menu or a double-click with one middle click, or any number of other quick functions. If this programming option isn’t available, you might have to install the mouse software that came with your mouse.

Because of the tremendous versatility of the right mouse button, there is much, much more that it can do for you in various applications and situations. It never hurts to see what options it offers you and you’re sure to be pleased with the expanded functionality.