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What Is a Clipboard?


In your advice about reattaching broken email URLs, you mentioned “copying
to the clipboard.” WHAT and/or WHERE is this mysterious clipboard? Many times
as I have closed a program, the screen will pop up telling me I “have a lot of
information on the clipboard” and do I “want to save it?” I haven’t a clue where
to look to find out what/where it is.

The clipboard is another one of the small, but powerful little items that we
often take for granted.

It’s such a simple thing and yet we never talk about exactly what it is or
why one would care.

We just use it. Constantly. Every single day.

Let’s look at the clipboard.


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The Mysterious Clipboard

The clipboard isn’t so much a “thing” as it is a “place”.

But even then, “place” isn’t exactly accurate either.

The clipboard is simply a place where Windows remembers something – exactly
one thing – for you.

That’s really all it is.

And yet, as simple as it is, it’s extremely powerful.

“The Windows clipboard can hold only one thing at a time.”

Putting things in the clipboard

You place things into the clipboard
using either the Copy or Cut commands in various applications
and in Windows itself.

Copy simply makes a copy of whatever it is you’ve selected and
places it in the clipboard, whereas Cut deletes your selection after
the copy is made.

Great. But, once it’s in the clipboard, what then?

Using things in the clipboard

The opposite of copying something into the clipboard is to copy something
out – the Paste operation.

Paste copies whatever is in the clipboard and places it at the
current cursor or selection location.

Copy/Cut puts things in the clipboard (wherever Windows
might keep it) and Paste copies the contents of the clipboard into
your selected destination.

Clipboard contents

The clipboard is available for many, many things.

Most commonly, you can select some text in a document using your mouse, then
right-click it and select Copy or Cut. You can then click
elsewhere in that document to Paste what you had selected into a
different location.

Windows Explorer uses the cut/copy/paste metaphor and the clipboard to allow
you to move or copy files.

But the real power of the clipboard isn’t in simple file or text manipulation.

The clipboard works between applications

The real power of the clipboard is that it’s a Windows service that’s
provided to all applications that choose to use it.

Copy text from one application and Paste it into

Copy a file in Windows Explorer and Paste it into an
email where it becomes as an attachment.

Copy a photo from a website and Paste it into a graphics
program to save or modify.

Copy a file from one drive and Paste it to another to make
a backup copy.

Hopefully, you get the idea.

Viewing the clipboard’s contents

Windows XP includes a tool called “clipbrd.exe” (located in
\Windows\system32) which, when running, will display the current contents of the

For some reason, Windows 7 doesn’t include this tool. You can copy the
clipbrd.exe tool from a Windows XP installation, if you like. If not, you’ll need
to download a third-party application to view the clipboard contents.

Important: You don’t need a clipboard viewer to use the clipboard.
Just use cut/copy/paste as described above and Windows will handle it all just

The one big limitation

The Windows clipboard can hold only one thing at a time.

When you Copy or Cut something into the clipboard, anything that was previously there is erased.

While that might sound like a serious limitation, in practice, it is not. The
clipboard is a quick, short-term storage location as you copy data from one
location to another.

While occasionally it might be nice to have more than one clipboard, and
there are tools that attempt to do this, the simple “copy/paste” metaphor is
quickly complicated in those cases to track which clipboard or which item it is
you might be operating on.

† Often you’ll hear “in” or “into” the clipboard as
well as “on” or “onto” the clipboard. “In” is much more common, but “on” more
accurately matches the physical clipboard metaphor. Both are correct.

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11 comments on “What Is a Clipboard?”

  1. I copied a file in windows explorer. When I tried to paste it into an email in Thunderbird, the paste command was greyed out.

  2. @Robert
    If you are trying to copy and paste a file into Thunderbird, it won’t work. There are two things you can do .
    1. You can copy and paste text from a file into the body of an email, Or
    2. You can attach a file to an email, either by clicking on the “Attach” button and browsing for the file, or you can a file from Windows Explorer to the email address area of the email.

  3. Leo, I disagree with your statement that “it might be nice” to have more than one clipboard — it’s absolutely essential! Once I settled on the awesome ArsClip utility and figured out how to use and customize it, there was no going back to a single buffer clipboard.

    {copyrighted material removed}

    Having both permanent clips (like your e-mail and postal addresses) and multiple recent text and non-text clips is a major time-saving convenience — I can’t live without it!

  4. BTW, one other thing to know about effective clipboard use is the importance of mastering the Ctrl-X (cut), Ctrl-C (copy) and Ctrl-V (paste) keyboard shortcuts.

    One of my friends was repeatedly using her mouse to go to the Edit menu for all clipboard operations before I showed her how much quicker the keystroke combinations worked…

  5. Leo – I strongly suspect that there is more to “copying” to the clipboard. Is not the clipboard also a format-conversion program? For example, the way text is formatted in the various versions of Word (except maybe .docx) is wildly different from the formatting techniques in other programs. How is this magic trick accomplished? And do graphics get copied/pasted always at the same resolution and color depth from program to program?

    You’re correct in that I covered only the basic concept of the clipboard – it’s where I see most people stumble, so I didn’t want to get too complex. How things get copied is actually much more complex and involves programs “offering” different clipboard formats when they copy, programs taking only some of those formats, and so on. Event the question about image resolution and colordepth depends on the programs involved. Clipboard is a very simple concept, but in many ways it’s also an iceberg of complexity beneath the water line.

  6. Along the same lines as Chuck Small’s question, it seems clipboard will only paste graphic images into a document as a “PNG” file. Is it possible to change the setting so it will paste as a jpg? It can be done with “Paste Special” from the edit menu, but is there a way to change the default?

    It’s not a function of the clipboard doing anything. It’s entirely up to the program you copied from, and the program into which you are pasting.

  7. I have used another clipboard utility for storing multiple clips. This has become essential to my work day. MS Office has had multiple clips for some time too, though they are only valid within Office itself.
    To S. Clark: in MS Office 2010 there is a Set Default Paste… dialog but nothing in there that allows you to set the format of the pasted image.

  8. One word…Internote. A simple app that is similar to other multi-clipboard apps. Simple, yes. It also is quite powerful it you wish to delve deeper [even make back-ups]. I use it as a clipboard for all daily on-line adventures. Here’s Why.

    Though it’s a Firefox application [I love FF apps], it’s open source that should work in any browser. Simply put, it’s a post-it note that “sticks” to any page. You can type or copy/past to it [text only, but no size limit] and stick it to a page of choice, or have follow you through an entire site, or even place all of them in a single location. It can be translucent, or be hidden [but be reminded so your wont forget it’s there]. Use many as needed, however you need. So simple, so easy, so reliable. A short leaning curve, and your up & running. It doesn’t get complicated, and excellent for users that want it keep it simple. For me simplicity is paramount.

  9. One very important use of the clipboard is its relation to the mysterious PrintScreen|SysRq button on the keyboard. Yes, pressing that button takes a picture of the screen, but where does it go. Why, to the ‘clipboard’ of course. Then you can ‘Paste’ the image in any application that will accept it, such as MS Word.


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