Tips for searching in the Mac Mail app

Searching for an email in the Mac Mail app seems easy enough, but if you know how Mail’s searching works it’s even easier. Here’s what you need to know.

Keyboard shortcut

What do you think the keyboard shortcut for finding an email is? You probably guessed “⌘-F.” So did I. But that’s for searching for stuff within the current email message. To searcher an email in the entire collection of emails, which is what you probably want to do, use ⌥-⌘-F (Option-Command-F).

Mac Mail's Edit menu, showing
To search the entire Mail database, use ⌥-⌘-F.

The more you type, the less you find

You type something into the Search field (did you know you can move the search field? Hold the Command key down and drag it to place), but you don’t find what you’re looking for. What do you do next? A lot of people think that they should type more, but that’s wrong, because the more you type, the less you find.

For example, if you search for “UCLA” and find 20 messages, but the message you want isn’t in there, adding “Bruins” to the search won’t help. That’s because Mail only finds messages that match every condition you search for. So, if you search for “UCLA Bruins,” Mail only shows you messages that have both “UCLA” and “Bruins” in them.

Moral of the story: if you don’t find as many messages as you think you should, don’t add more search criteria. Instead, pare things down.

You can make Mail work the way you think it should– that is, you can make it search for either UCLA or Bruins– if you put the word “OR” in between. So, if you want to find every email that has either UCLA or Bruins in it, search for “UCLA OR Bruins.” (This is called “Boolean searching.” Mail’s default behavior is to assume there’s an “AND” between the words you type in the Search box.)

Specify where to search

Mail searches whichever mailbox you’ve chosen in the sidebar unless you tell it otherwise. This can produce surprising results, because you may have the wrong folder selected. If you don’t find what you’re expecting to find look for a tiny “All” in the Mail Favorites bar (across the top of the Mail viewer window) and click it. Or, click another mailbox and try again.

Search results restricted to the Inbox.
107 items found… but I’m only looking in the Inbox.
Search results when clicking "All" button in Favorites bar.
Same search, but I clicked “All” in the Favorites bar, leading to 305 messages found

Don’t choose from the menu unless you have to

Over and over I see people do the same thing when searching Mail: after they type something into the Search box they choose something from the menu that drops down from there. The menu has things like “From” and “To” and “Subject” etc., which narrows down the search. This results in fewer messages being found compared to the number that would have been found without choosing from the menu, and sometimes it means the item that’s being looked for isn’t in the list of found messages.

Searching without choosing from the menu
107 matches for “extension cord” without choosing anything from the menu

Of course, if you know that the text you’re searching for was part of the subject line then by all means choose “Subject” from the menu. Otherwise, I wouldn’t choose anything from there. Just type what you want to look for and let the Mail app do its thing. Don’t even hit Return– it’s not needed.

Search results after choosing "Subject" from the menu
I chose “Subject” from the menu and now there are only two messages found

Specify a date range

If you find too many emails and you want to narrow things down by date you can, but it’s a little bit of trouble. Type what you want to look for, then the word “date,” then a colon, then the date range, like so:

soccer date:7/8/2020-7/15/2020

That will get you emails with the word “soccer” in them somewhere (anywhere), but only if the date on the email is between July 8th 2020 and July 15th 2020.

Easier way: just type in “this week soccer.” (You might try “soccer this week” but it won’t work. Put the “this week” part in first.)

Try a natural language search

This feels awkward at first but it’s the way things are going, so it’s good to get good at this. (You’ll have great success with this on Google too– don’t ask for “recipe muffin blueberry easy”– instead search for “easier blueberry muffin recipes” or “what’s the easiest blueberry muffin recipe?”)

For example, if you’re looking for an email from Bob which mentioned hard drives, try searching for this:

from Bob about hard drive

Natural language search example #1.
Natural language search for messages from Bob about a hard drive

Here’s another example. You’re looking for an email from Sandy that had a PDF attachment. That’s the one you want. So, search for this:

PDF attachments from Sandy

Natural language search example #2.
Natural language search results for “PDF attachments from Sandy”

Search the Junk folder, just in case

Mail doesn’t look at the messages in the Junk folder unless you ask it to. Macs are so fast at searching that I think you may as well check the box for Junk so you don’t miss a message that landed in Junk by mistake.

Mail's Preferences, showing how to control which mailboxes get searched.
Mail won’t search the Junk mail folder unless you check the box. I’d check it.

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