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What Is Backspace?

A computer, mouse, and keyboard with a backspace key.
On manual typewriters, the backspace key could move the carriage back one space but could not delete any letters.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2014
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Backspace is a key that can be found on most standard computer keyboards, which typically serves a number of functions depending on the program being used when the key is pressed. In word processing programs, it will typically move the cursor back one space and delete any character or space that may be present in that position. This is in contrast to the delete key that will usually not move the cursor at all, but will delete any character immediately following the cursor position. Backspace can also be used in programs to help navigate back through a folder or webpage.

Sometimes called the “rubout key,” backspace is a key that continues to be found on computer keyboards even though its traditional purpose on a manual typewriter was somewhat different. On a typewriter keyboard, the backspace key would traditionally move the carriage holding the paper back one space but not perform any kind of correction or deletion. This was often used for adding overstrike symbols, such as accent marks that appear over certain letters in various languages. By pressing the key, the user of the typewriter could move the carriage back to a letter he or she already typed, and then type another letter or symbol that would be placed in the same space.

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On a modern computer keyboard, the backspace key continues to serve a similar function, though it has also taken on a secondary feature. When pressed, this function will not only cause the cursor on the page of a word processing document or similar text document to move back a space, but also delete whatever may be present in that space. This allows the key to be used for corrective purposes, as well as moving the cursor. The traditional feature of the backspace key to move the cursor without correction can usually be accomplished through the use of arrows present on computer keyboards but were absent on typewriters.

Backspace is typically located in the upper right corner of the letter section of a standard computer keyboard, following the numbers and plus and minus symbols. It is usually indicated with its full name, or a similar term such as “erase,” and it is often accompanied by an arrow pointing backward. A number of other programs also use the backspace key for other features. When navigating a file system on a computer, for example, the key will often navigate the user to the previous file, while in a web browsing program it will typically cause the browser to go back to a previous page.

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