The Mac's Mail app Explained

Last modified
Saturday, January 2, 2021
Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team


The default Mail app on the Mac is easy enough to use once you set up your mail accounts. You up and down arrow through your messages, press delete to trash some, and… Wait, how do you read messages? Enter? VO-J? Use the preview? When writing a message, how do you choose contacts, or add multiple contacts to a field? Why is it so hard to view attachments? How do you add mailboxes to your favorites bar, so you can access them with hotkeys? Okay, so Mail isn't as simple as it first seems, but that's why AppleVis exists.

The Layout

Assuming your account(s) are properly configured and you are receiving mail, the setup of the Mail app will be something like this:

After the toolbar is the Favorites Bar Group. This holds any mailbox you've set as a favorite. If this is hidden, press Command-Option-Shift-H to show it. Next is the table of all your mailboxes. Note that your inbox, drafts, and other common mailboxes are unified; that is, messages from all your accounts appear together. To get to a single account, just find the mailbox and press right arrow to expand it, then down arrow to the desired account. If you don't see this table, press Command-Shift-M (the same command will hide the table if you want to get it out of your way).

After the table of mailboxes comes the Messages table; this is the actual table of messages. As is often the case on the Mac, you don't need to interact to read your mail. Simply pressing up or down arrow anywhere that is not the mailboxes table is enough to browse your messages.

By default, the Preview Pane is after the messages table. This displays the contents of the currently selected message, which has its pros and cons. You can press VO-J on a message to jump to the Preview Pane and read the content, which some find more efficient. However, whenever a message is shown in this pane, it is marked as read. If you rely on the unread status of a message to know if you still need to deal with it, then the Preview Pane is going to be a problem - just the act of arrowing past a message will cause it to become read, even if you don't actually stop to read it.

Of course, the menu bar (VO-M) includes many commands, most of which have keyboard shortcuts. Additionally, any mailbox you have in your favorites bar gets its own shortcut, according to its position. The first mailbox in the list can be jumped to with Command-1, the second with Command-2, and so on. Here are a few other shortcuts that may come in handy:

  • Command-R: reply to sender
  • Command-Shift-R: reply to all
  • Command-Shift-F: forward
  • delete: move current message or selected messages to trash
  • up or down arrow: move to the next or previous message
  • Shift-up or Shift-down: select messages, or de-select if moving past already selected messages
  • left/right arrow: close/open a thread
  • Command-Y: Quick Look attachments
  • Command-Shift-D: send message (when composing)
  • Command-N: create new message

Those are not all the available commands, but they are the ones I imagine you will use most often. Now that the basics are out of the way, let's see about some of the more advanced or tricky features.

The Favorites Bar

As mentioned above, the Favorites Bar holds all the mailboxes you consider important, and lets you jump between them with convenient hotkeys. The first mailbox is accessed with Command-1, the second with Command-2, and so on. Even more conveniently, you can quickly move a message to a favorite mailbox: Command-Control-1 moves the message to your first favorite, Command-Control-2 moves it to your second favorite, you get the idea.

By default, your Inbox, Drafts, Sent, and other standard folders are in your Favorites Bar. If you use other folders a lot, though, such as if you use rules to auto-sort messages, you'll want quick access to more than just the defaults. Adding a folder to, or removing one from, the Favorites Bar is a bit tedious, but it isn't hard once you do it a few times. To add a folder:

  1. Interact with the Mailboxes Table and find the mailbox you want to add. Once VoiceOver has spoken it, put your mouse there by pressing VO-Command-f5 (remember to add the function key if this doesn't work, depending on your settings).
  2. You are now going to drag the mailbox. To do this, lock the mouse down with VO-Command-Shift-Space. Disable cursor tracking with VO-Shift-f3, or this may not work.
  3. Stop interacting with the Mailboxes Table and VO-left to the Favorites Bar Group. Interact with that, and find the mailbox to whose right you want your newly added mailbox to appear. Again, place the mouse there with VO-Command-f5.
  4. Unlock the mouse with VO-Command-shift-space, and the mailbox should drop into place.
  5. Use steps 1 through 4 on mailboxes within the Favorites Bar to re-order your mailboxes. Again, the order decides the number to which each box is assigned.
  6. Once you are done moving things around, don't forget to press VO-Shift-f3 again to re-enable cursor tracking.

If you decide to remove a mailbox, simply repeat the above steps to start dragging it, but do so from within the Favorites Bar instead of the Mailboxes Table. Release the mouse outside of the Favorites Bar and the mailbox should be removed (not deleted, just dragged out of your favorites).

Reading Messages

So, how do you actually read the content of a message? There are three ways, kind of.

First, the message preview is always spoken as you arrow through the list of messages. How much of the text is spoken is controlled in Mail's Preferences, under the Viewing button in the toolbar. Find the "list preview" popup button, and choose how many lines of the message you'd like. This amount of the text will be spoken as you arrow to each message.

If you leave the Preview Pane on, the next way to view a message is to find it in the table and press VO-J. This should move you to the Preview Pane and cause VoiceOver to start reading the entire message. To return to the messages list, just press VO-J a second time.

Finally, there is the method I personally prefer: simply press enter on a message. This causes it to open in a separate window, and VoiceOver to speak the subject, then the message content. To skip the subject, just press VO-A (or, if your Trackpad Commander is on, do a two-finger swipe down) to start reading the message content immediately. When you are done with the message, press Command-W to close the window and return to the messages list. While a message is open in this way, you can also view message headers.

Threaded Conversations

By default, messages are threaded. This means that, if you and another person are writing back and forth, the replies you get from that person are all grouped together. VoiceOver indicates the presence of a conversation by saying "X message conversation collapsed/expanded" before speaking the rest of the message attributes. The X stands for how many messages the conversation contains, and collapsed/expanded is the status of the conversation; expanded means that all the messages are shown, while collapsed means that none are.

To expand a collapsed conversation, simply press right arrow, and use left arrow to collapse an expanded one. Very occasionally, these two commands will stop working. I've found that, when that happens, the simplest way to get things back to normal is to disable VoiceOver (Command-f5), then left or right arrow a couple times until the error tone stops playing. You can then turn VoiceOver back on (again, Command-f5) and things should be back to normal.

While reading messages in a conversation, note that many attributes are skipped. Specifically, the subject and preview are not spoken, so to know what a message says, you must open it or use the Preview Pane. When a conversation is collapsed, the preview that is read is for either the first message, or the oldest unread message if not all are already read.

Should you wish to, you can disable threading entirely. Simply go to the View Menu and uncheck "Organize by Conversation". To re-enable conversations, check this option again.

Column Layout

Column Layout is an alternate layout that provides a slightly different look and feel to the Mail app, specifically to the Messages Table. Whereas the Standard Layout has a specific order to message attributes that you must use, Column Layout lets you change that order. It does not, however, let you use the message preview that Standard Layout does, so the only way to have any idea what a message says is to read it. Additionally, Column Layout uses a different type of table, which, once you interact with it, lets you up and down arrow through a specific column instead of having to hear every column for every message. If you do want to hear every column, simply stop interacting with the table, then use up and down arrows like in Standard Layout.

Column Layout can be enabled by choosing "Use Column Layout" from the View menu (VO-M, V.)

Addressing an Email

When you write a new email, you get suggestions as you type names. These are pulled from both your saved contacts and the addresses you have sent to in the past, even if they are not stored as contacts. There are some helpful tricks that you may not realize you can use to make this feature even more useful.

Selecting an Address

As you type in the To, CC or BCC fields of a new email, Mail auto-suggests people and addresses for you. If you have a contact with multiple addresses, and/or multiple matches to the text you have typed so far, the one that gets selected is the one that is alphabetically first. To move through all the people that match the characters you typed in so far, simply press up or down arrow. To confirm your choice, press enter, and the person's name is inserted as what VoiceOver calls "attached text". This means that VoiceOver will treat the entire name as a single item, similar to how it sees links on webpages. If you were to use left or right arrows to examine the text, you would find that the full text is spoken even though those arrow keys normally move by character. Once you press enter, you can simply start typing another name or email address to select the next recipient; pressing enter inserts your choice, so what you then start typing has no effect on the address you just inserted. Should you wish to delete an addressee, use left and right arrows to find the name. Put your cursor to the right of the name, and press delete. VoiceOver will say that the name or address is selected, so press delete once more to remove it.

You can also change the address of a recipient after you've pressed enter. The process is slightly more complicated than simply arrowing, but it is easy enough.

  1. Move to the recipient's name - the "attached text" that VoiceOver reads. Interact with that text. VoiceOver will say "In edit text", as misleading as that may be.
  2. Press VO-Space, and a menu will appear. If it does not, you may have interacted one too many times; stop interacting once and try VO-Space again.
  3. Once the menu does show up, you can choose a different address for the person, if you have more than one stored, or select any of the other options available.

Saved Addresses

Mail automatically saves the names and email addresses of people to whom you send emails, even if you don't save those people in your contacts. If you decide you want to remove any of these saved addresses, go to the Window menu (VO-M, W, down arrow) and choose Previous Recipients. You are presented with a search field and, to the right of that, a table with every saved address Mail has stored. Past that are two buttons, one to remove the selected address, and one to add it to your contacts. You can use the remove button, or simply press delete; with no confirmation, the address you are on is removed. When you are done, press Command-W to close this window and get back to where you were in Mail.

VIP Management

In both iOS and macOS, the Mail app has a way to set certain addresses as VIP. This way, you can be notified when a VIP sends you an email, perfect for keeping up with close friends, or monitoring an important conversation.

To toggle a person's VIP status, simply locate an email from them and press enter to open it. Find the Message Headers Group and interact with it; the first thing you find should be the button you want. If a person is not a VIP, you will hear "Mark as VIP, Read Button". If the person is already on your VIP list, the text will instead say "VIP, Read Button". Press this button to toggle the person's inclusion in your VIPs.

Viewing Headers

Sometimes, you need to look at the headers of a message. The process for doing so is easy, but not necessarily obvious, depending on how you usually read your email.

Find the message in question, and press enter to open it. Locate the "Message Headers" group and interact, then find the text field (the only two things in this group are that text and the VIP toggle button). The text field will, by default, show you only the sender, recipients, and subject; use Command-Shift-H to switch between this basic information and full headers. The same option can be found in the View Menu, under the Message submenu. Keep in mind that this setting is global, so if you enable full headers for one message, you enable it for all of them.

Handling Attachments

Attachments in emails you receive can be dealt with in one of three ways: Quick Look, saving via the menus, or saving directly. As usual, each way has its good and bad points, and each is useful for different situations.

Quick Look

This is a perfect way to, well, quickly look at attached files. You don't need to open them in any app, or save them, or do anything else. Of course, the type of file must be supported by macOS in order to be viewed, but the vast majority of file types will work just fine. To use this method, simply press Command-Y on any message with attachments, and the Quick Look window will open. Note that, if you use enter on messages to view them, you must not be viewing a message when you try to use Command-Y, but rather be on the table of messages. If a message has multiple attachments, there will be buttons in the Quick Look window to let you choose which file you want to view. When you are done, just press space to dismiss the window.


You can save attachments instead of opening them if you want to. Oddly, there is no keyboard shortcut to handle this; you must go to the File Menu, then choose "Save Attachments". Choose a location in the usual way, and your attachments should be saved.

Locating Manually

Finally, you can find an attachment in the email and act on it that way. This is made simple by VoiceOver, which will treat any attached file it finds in the text of an email like a link or contact name. Press enter to open the message, or move to it in the Preview Pane, and be sure to interact with the text (if you use VO-J and the Preview Pane, VoiceOver should interact automatically). Now read your message, and find the attachment you want either by moving the cursor with normal commands (Option-left/right to move by word, Command-left/right for start/end of line, all those), or VO-arrows to focus on the attachment. Press VO-Shift-M to access a menu of options for the attachment. Should that fail, try VO-Space, or perform an actual right click (Control-click for mice or trackpads with only one button).

Attaching Files

If you need to attach a file to an email, the process could not be easier. Simply copy (Command-C) the file from Finder, and paste (Command-V) wherever you want the file to appear in your message. Other Macs or iOS devices will show the attached file where you pasted it, whereas most Windows email clients will simply show the file attached to your message, but not in the text itself.

Alternatively, while you are typing your email, press Command-Shift-A and you can browse for one or more files to attach (use standard selection commands to attach multiple files). As before, these will appear where your cursor is in the text. Reviewing what is attached is as simple as listening to the filenames embedded in your message.

Navigating HTML Emails or Opening Links

Sometimes, you get an email that shows up with images, headings, links, and so on. To navigate this, open it (enter or use the Preview Pane), and employ all the same navigation commands you know from Safari. Remember, if you plan to activate links or use a read command such as VO-A, you should interact with the email's text before you start; trust me, it will make your life much easier. The most useful navigation commands are probably:

  • VO-Command-H: next heading (add Shift for previous heading)
  • VO-Command-L: next link (add Shift for previous link)
  • VO-Space: activate a link under the cursor
  • VO-Shift-M: open a menu of options for anything under the cursor (most useful for links)


While Mail is an easy program to start using, I hope this has helped you with some of its more advanced or tricky functions. As always, please drop me a note in the comments if I've missed anything or if something is unclear, and I can try to help.


The article on this page has generously been submitted by a member of the AppleVis community. As AppleVis is a community-powered website, we make no guarantee, either express or implied, of the accuracy or completeness of the information.



Submitted by Ekaj on Saturday, July 26, 2014

As usual, this is an awesome post. A lot of times when I try to delete an individual message or a conversation, nothing happens and the messages are still there when I navigate with my up and down arrow keys. Sometimes when this happens though, I can exit the mail app and when I open it again said messages are in the trash where they should be. Sometimes I have also gotten a prompt when deleting a message that says something like "This message could not be moved to the trash." But then when I hit Delete again the message is actually moved to the trash right away.

Submitted by mehgcap on Saturday, July 26, 2014

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

If you're using Gmail, I'm not surprised. Be sure you have the latest version of your OS (10.9.4 for Mavericks), and that's all I can say. Personally, I've switched over to iCloud Mail and never been happier. Obviously this is not a solution for everyone, but Gmail has always had a weird implementation of IMAP, and even in 10.8 I noticed odd behavior.

Submitted by Ekaj on Sunday, July 27, 2014

No, I'm actually using AT&T. But I might try iCloud to see what happens. My sister who uses a Mac Book Air has SBC Global, and this has never happened to her. I'm wondering if it has something to do with grouped conversations.

Submitted by Usman on Sunday, July 27, 2014

I had a question regarding saving a contact. If I want to save the sender of a particular message as a contact, how can this be accomplished?

Submitted by Chelsea on Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hi Mehgcap,

As usual, your guides are great. I consider myself to be a somewhat advanced Mac user, but having all the tricks in one place certainly helps. I learn new things every day!

I wanted to mention that saving attachments has always been a pain for me, just involving too many steps, particularly since they took out the "Save All" menu in Mavericks. For anyone who is interested, I've found two ways around this problem:

1. Create a system shortcut key in System Preferences to trigger the "Save Attachment" option in the File menu. I think this works for only one file at a time.
2. Use Automator. this is what I did. I created a workflow that will save all attachments of the currently focussed message to wherever I want, then play a small sound clip to confirm it worked. You will need the Audio Actions package to get that last part to work. The workflow will run even if the message you are focussed on doesn't have any attachments. For now I have it set up to go through the VoiceOver Keyboard commander, but that can always be changed.

Let me know if anyone is interested and I can maybe put the required components in a public Dropbox or take you through the steps of making the workflow.

Hope this helps. It's a small thing, but saves many, many keystrokes over time.


Submitted by mehgcap on Sunday, July 27, 2014

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

As the comment title says, simply focus on the message whose sender you want, then go to the Message Menu and choose Add Sender to Contacts.

Submitted by Usman on Sunday, July 27, 2014

that's what I originally thought but when I did that, there was no feedback as to whether it did anything or not. Plus, I wish it would bring up a dialogue box where you can put in the name, email address or any other information you want attached to that particular contact.
This is one area that I would say windows has the advantage.

Submitted by mehgcap on Monday, July 28, 2014

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

You're right, no feedback is provided. After you perform the command, though, you can open contacts and find the newly added entry. I realize this is not as convenient at all, but it is the only way I know of to do it.

Submitted by Usman on Thursday, July 31, 2014

so this might be a stupid question, but is it possible to expand and collapse threads with quick nag turned on? I could get it to work with it turned off but not with it turned on. I tried hitting the VO backslash command but it didn't work.

Submitted by Usman on Thursday, July 31, 2014

so this might be a stupid question, but is it possible to expand and collapse threads with quick nag turned on? I could get it to work with it turned off but not with it turned on. I tried hitting the VO backslash command but it didn't work.

Submitted by mehgcap on Thursday, July 31, 2014

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Yes, vo-backslash will work. The trick is that you must be interacting with the table first. At least, it works on my machine. Personally, I leave quick Nav off almost all the time, because I find that it just causes more trouble than it's worth.

Submitted by Ekaj on Thursday, December 4, 2014

Hi all. I'm revisiting an old topic because I just found a workaround for the deletion problem I referred to earlier in this thread. This seems to have worked for me today, and hopefully it will in the future too. If your inbox messages aren't deleting when you issue the command, bring up the Mail's Context menu with VO-Shift-M, and arrow up or down to the choice that says Archive. Hit Enter. The message or messages that wouldn't delete from your Inbox will now be in a subfolder called Archive. This folder can be gotten to in the usual way with Shift-Tab. Once you are in the Archive folder, bring up the Context menu again with VO-Shift-M, and arrow up or down to the "Move To" submenu. Go in there with right arrow, and up or down arrow to Trash. Each subsequent message that you archive is then moved to the Trash. When you bring up the Context menu and arrow up or down to "Trash Again," the other messages to delete will also go to the Trash. Hope this helps someone.

Submitted by John Lipsey on Wednesday, April 8, 2015

This is a fantastic guide! I've used a Mac for 4 years now, even teach it to some people, and still learnt things from reading this guide. However, I'm having a problem moving mailboxes to my favorites bar. Interestingly, the procedure works perfectly fine for getting mailboxes out of the favorites bar, but I can't move a mailbox into the favorites bar. When I find the mailbox I want in the mailboxes table and press VO command F5, the name of the mailbox is read as expected. Locking down the mouse results in voiceover saying "Mouse down on split group". Moving the cursor to the location in the favorites bar where I want the mailbox results in that little dragging sound I would expect, but unlocking the mouse doesn't result in the mailbox actually moving. I'm running OSx 10.9.5, if that's important. Any suggestions on making this actually work would be awesome.

Submitted by Bryan Jones on Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hello John - This is one of those functions that seems to change with the season. Try the following, it's the method that currently works on my system running 10.9.5.

1. Interact with the mailbox list and navigate to the desired mailbox.

2. Press VO+Shift+Command+Spacebar to perform a mouse-down. VO should announce, "Mouse Down."

3. Stop interacting with the mailbox list.

4. Navigate to the Favorites bar, but do not interact with it.

5. Press VO+Shift+Command+Spacebar to release the mouse button. VO should announce, "Mouse up on Favorites Bar."

6. Interact with the Favorites Bar, navigate right or left through the list of mailboxes, and you will hopefully find the newly added mailbox.


Submitted by Tom Lasinski on Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Is there a way to scroll the message column one page at a time. I have many messages each day and it would be nice to have a way scroll reliably one page at a time.

Submitted by splyt on Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Something which triggers one given OS general question but I will ask here anyways.
Sometimes I happen to go to the 150 or so th message in the list.
I can not figure out a way of going quickly to the first message. I need a command similar to vo shift home but one that runs on the context of the element I am currently interacted with so I canm go to thhe first element of that object ... this would make possible to go quickly to the first message

Submitted by Joseph Westhouse on Wednesday, September 16, 2015

I've had this same issue. Strangely, sometimes VO + Shift + Home actually does return me to the top of the message list, but other times it sends me to a different screen element. I'm sure it has to do with whether or not I'm interacting with the messages list, but I'm not sure.

Submitted by splyt on Wednesday, September 16, 2015

It did not work for me I have always been taken to tht first element of the window it doesn't make a difference where I am.

This is frustrating because sometimes I need to go to the top of a html page in Safari and can not do it something I can easily do on other platforms.

If there is another command and folks can tell us it'd be really cool.

Submitted by Marc on Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mac OS X 10.10.5 Yosemite
Apple Mail in standard view

Using standard Apple mail, is there a workflow for moving quickly between the search field in the tool bar and the message list? For example, the focus is on the sent mailbox. I want to go to the search edit field in the tool bar and type in Fred. Then I want to return to the message table and navigate through the messages. I am wondering if I can create a workflow that will automate all the interacting and stop interacting.


Submitted by Igna Triay on Monday, November 9, 2015

When I choose the option to add an attachment to the email, and I select a file, that is in pages format, when ever I attach it, it will still be in pages format when the other person gets the email. Is there a way to export the file before attaching it? For those of you who use a braille note apex, you'll notice that when you attach a file to an email, it will ask you what format do you want the file to be attached as. Is there a way to do this on the Mac?

Submitted by Charlette on Tuesday, February 2, 2016

In reply to by Igna Triay

Hello. If you want to modify the format of your document from Pages to Word, open up your document in Pages then go to the file menu and select the export to link. There you will find different options you can choose from to export your document, including Word. You will be given the opportunity to rename you document. Just know that you will have 2 of the same documents; one in Pages and one in Word. There are a few more steps to take after selecting what type of format you would like but it is simple enough after that. Hope this helps.

Submitted by Lisa on Tuesday, February 2, 2016

hello everyone,
I'm a new Mac user, so I am new to the email program. I started writing an email to finish later, so I saved it to my drafts folder with, command S. When I went back to my drafts folder my email was there, but I couldn't figure out how to get into the fields so I could put in a subject, and the email address of the person I wanted to send my email too. I tried tabbing, but this did not work. So how can I fill these fields in before sending my message from my drafts folder? Thank you.

Submitted by Pete De Vasto on Friday, March 23, 2018

I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get one of my two mail accounts to use a signature. I tried drag and drop like you do to move mailboxes to the favorites area, but that doesn't work. Does anyone have a way to set up a signature?

Submitted by Cliff on Monday, May 7, 2018

Hi there! Good guide indeed, but is the content here beginning to get a bit outdated in some areas?
I was so happy when now reading that I can change the order of columns in classic view, but I can't for the life of me find a working way of doing this.
I'm on the latest releas of High Sierra, so things may have changed since this guide was originally posted.
I hit VO+Shift+Backslash and get to the headings, but after that, nothing will let me move any of the columns. Not VO+comma, not VO+Cmd+Shift+Space to simulate mouse down on an object, and interacting with heading or not interacting doesn't seem to make any difference either.
Does anyone know of a valid way of doing this in High Sierra?
Thanks in advance :)

Submitted by shuteye on Sunday, March 31, 2019

Great guide! I've been using the Mac now for 13 years and still learned a few things. My question is: I like hearing the new mail sound when a new email comes in. I however do not like how Voiceover reads the first few lines of a message, regardless of what other window I'm in or whether or not I'm reading something else at the time. How can I stop this behaviour?