Tagging in Acrobat from the keyboard

I’m updating this post as of May 2020. Adobe inexplicably made a change to F2 this month, and at some earlier point, DC changed the behavior of F6 as well.

Since much of my work revolves around §508 compliance, I spend a lot of time restructuring tags in Acrobat. Unfortunately you can’t just handwrite out these tags à la HTML, you have to physically manipulate a tree structure. The Tags panel is very conducive to mouse use, and because Adobe is Adobe, not very conducive to keyboard use. Many important tasks are missing readily available keyboard shortcuts, and it has taken me a while to be able to largely ditch the mouse1 and instead use the keyboard to very quickly restructure the tags on very long, very poorly tagged documents.

A couple of notes – this assumes a Windows machine, and one with a Menu key2. While I generally prefer working on MacOS, I’m stuck with Windows at work, so these are my efficiencies. Windows may actually have the leg up here, since the Acrobat keyboard support is so poor, and MacOS does not have a Menu key equivalent. Additionally, this applies to Acrobat XI, it may or may not apply to current DC versions. Finally, all of this information is discoverable, but I haven’t really seen a primer laid out on it. If nothing else perhaps it will help a future version of myself who forgets all of this.

Up, Down:
These are easy, they just move up or down a single tag. Page Up and Page Down go up or down a page worth, vs. a fixed number. Holding Shift selects as you go.
Left, Right:
These go into or out of a tree branch. If the current highlighted tag is an open branch, going Left will close the branch. If the current highlighted tag is uncloseable (that is, it is a closed branch or a leaf), going Left will jump to the parent branch tag. This can be used to quickly navigate up a branch. Note that sometimes it is beneficial to completely unfold a branch, and I have yet to find a way to do this from the keyboard, but Ctrl-clicking the disclosure ‘+’ accomplishes this.
Ctrl-x, Ctrl-v:
These cut and paste as expected, and are really only worth mentioning for a couple of reasons. First, there is no copy. Since tags are ultimately associated with objects and not vice versa, presumably this could quickly become a problem. Second, this is how you’ll move things around in the tag tree. You can drag & drop things using the mouse, but generally speaking it is very quick to cut & paste tags to move them instead. With a lot of tag tree operations, the most efficiency is gained from starting at the bottom of your set of tags and working up. This applies here – reorganizing multiple tags is often best accomplished by building a stack tag-at-a-time from the bottom up and cutting and pasting the increasingly-large stack. Sounds slow, but with practice is quite quick. Pasting always happens below the highlighted tag (and thus on the same branch as the highlighted tag). The selection is left in place while pasting, so if one is moving a tag out of a branch and deleting the branch, the paste operation should be done from the branch to be deleted.
Menu s:
This pastes into a given tag, at the top of the tag’s contents. This comes in handy often enough, but is absolutely necessary if you’ve created a new (thus, empty) tag and need to start populating it.
Menu n:
Creates a new tag. Opens up a dialog box asking what sort of tag to create, you can either scroll through the dropdown list or type in the full name (that is, ‘List Item’ and not ‘LI’) of the tag. Tags are created below the current tag, and this inexplicably causes open branches at the same branch level as the current tag to close. This can be both disruptive and a waste of time as the computer closes everything, so often it’s worth creating a new tag one level deeper than necessary, or under a different parent and then moving it where it needs to go.
Changes a tag’s type (and potentially its title). This uses the short (HTML-like, that is ‘LI’ and not ‘List Item’) form of tag types, wrapped in angle brackets, and followed by the (optional) title. If you aren’t including a title, you can leave off the closing bracket. So, ‘<P’ will become a valid Paragraph tag, or ‘<H1> foo’ will become a Header Level 1 tag with the title ‘foo’.
(Edit: prior to May 2020, this was simply bound to F2; versions prior to DC and outdated DC installs should use F2 without Ctrl.)
Menu h:
Toggle ‘Highlight Content’, which outlines the content on the page that is contained in the current tag. Generally speaking this is very useful, but if you need to select a large tag (say, a Section containing 40 pp. worth of content), all that highlighting will bog Acrobat down, and turning it off first is a good idea.
Delete (not Backspace):
Deletes a tag (and all of its children, without warning). While I don’t intend for this to be a primer on accessibility or proper PDF structure, it cannot be stressed enough that you do not want to delete content (objects) or tags containing content from the tag tree. This will leave you with untagged content. If the content is visually necessary but structurally irrelevant, it should instead be tagged as an Artifact. If the content can be removed completely, it should be deleted from the Objects panel instead. If you have ‘Highlight content’ turned on, and nothing is highlighted on the page, you’re probably safe, though it’s best to fully open the tag and ensure there’s no content.
Menu e:
Changes a tag to an Artifact. This only works when you’re on the actual piece of content/object (which will always be a leaf). When you make an artifact, you will inexplicably be placed on the page (and out of the Tags panel).
Moves to the right one ‘view’, meaning if you’re on the page because you just made something an artifact, you can get back over to the Tags panel with a handful of presses (depending on your UI setup).
(Edit: Older versions of DC and versions prior to DC moved one ‘view’ left instead, meaning hopping back to the Tags panel was a single keystroke away. On older versions, going one more step left would get you to the list of panels; in current versions this must be done with Shift-Tab while on the open panel.)
Menu p:
Opens up the properties dialog for the current tag. Inside this dialog you can Tab around and/or use various Alt– shortcuts, but the most universally useful thing to know in here is that Alt-c closes the dialog.
Menu w:
This, too, only works when you’re on an actual piece of content, and it brings you to that piece of content in the Content panel. If you find some pointless content while crawling through the tags (say, an empty paragraph or a white background behind text), you can easily jump to the Content panel from here and delete the content itself (again, don’t delete the tag). Menu g does the inverse – takes you from a piece of content in the Content panel to its counterpart in the Tags panel. This, of course, only works if the content is tagged.

  1. While I do use a mouse for some things, if my pointing device is supplementing a keyboard-driven workflow and not the other way around, I prefer the trackpoint by far. I wish they were more commonplace (particularly on desktop keyboards) – it really is much more efficient when your fingers never have to leave the keyboard. ↩︎
  2. Laptop keyboards increasingly seem to be omitting the Menu key. Generally speaking, I’ll remap right Ctrl to be Menu if this is the case. ↩︎