Return and Enter Are Two Different Keys

A New York Times mini crossword clue over the weekend was based on the notion that “Enter” is just a synonym for the Return key. It’s not. They’re two different keys that usually perform the same action, but not always.

All keyboards have a dedicated Return key — it’s the big key you’re thinking of above the right Shift key. On a Mac, the key code when you press Return is 36, and the glyph for the key is ↵.

A dedicated Enter key is generally only present on extended keyboards with a numeric keypad — it’s the key in the lower-right corner and is generally the only oversized key on the keyboard that is larger vertically, not horizontally. Its Mac key code is 76 and its glyph is ⌅. Just look at such a keyboard: the Return key says “Return”, and the Enter key says “Enter”.

If your keyboard doesn’t have a dedicated Enter key, you can type the Enter key by pressing Fn-Return. That’s why some Return keys have “Enter” printed in small type above the word “Return”. If your keyboard has neither a dedicated Enter key nor an Fn modifier key, I don’t think you can type Enter, without resorting to sorcery.1

Return and Enter do usually perform the same action, but not always:

  • In Tweetbot for Mac, when you’re editing a tweet, Return will insert a newline character; Enter will immediately send the tweet.
  • In Script Editor and Script Debugger, Return inserts a newline, but Enter will compile the script.
  • In a BBEdit shell worksheet, Return inserts a newline, but Enter will execute the current line.
  • In some spreadsheets (but not Numbers), Return will confirm the contents of the cell you’re editing and move the selection to the next row; Enter will just confirm the contents of the current cell.

As a general rule, when they differ, Return is simply the key for typing a newline character (which, on classic Mac OS, was literally a return character, but let’s not get into that here), whereas Enter enters what you’ve already typed without adding a new line.2

  1. Keyboard Maestro is the easiest-to-use and most powerful way to attain such sorcery. You can use Keyboard Maestro to create a macro to simulate typing the Enter key and then assign the macro to whatever keyboard shortcut you want. ↩︎︎

  2. In contexts where even the Return key means “send this”, common in chat-type apps such as Messages and Slack, you can use Option-Return to insert a newline character. ↩︎