AppleScript Basics

by Jerry Stratton

Copyright © 2011

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Section, with no Front-Cover Text, and with no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License”

Getting started

Why AppleScript

AppleScript can automate monotonous, repetitive tasks, or tasks that need to be performed at a specific time. Mac OS X can (using it’s built-in scheduler via programs such as Apple’s iCal or Embraceware’s Awaken) run any script on the minute you need it to run.

AppleScript makes it easy to “talk” to standard Macintosh applications. It can “glue” applications together so that each application does what it does best.

AppleScript is easy to understand; it’s almost English:

tell application "Safari" to make new document with properties {URL:""}

This is a valid AppleScript statement. If you use it, Safari will create a new document, and inside that document it will open the web site.

Script Editor

Every Macintosh comes with a program called “AppleScript Editor” that allows you to create AppleScripts. AppleScript Editor is in the Applications folder, inside of the Utilities folder.

Recording Actions

If an application supports it, recording actions allows you to quickly build up a basic AppleScript. For example, if you go into AppleScript Editor and hit the “Record” button before making a new folder, you might end up with something like:

tell application "Finder"


make new folder at folder "Desktop" of folder "jerry" of folder "Users" of startup disk with properties {name:"untitled folder"}

set name of folder "untitled folder" of folder "Desktop" of folder "jerry" of folder "Users" of startup disk to "Quick New Folder"

end tell

This tells the program (“application”) called “Finder” to first activate, then make a new folder, and then change the name of that folder to “Quick New Folder”.

Unfortunately, most applications don’t support recording; if they do, however, it is often the easiest way to make a new script.

Carefully arrange the desktop

Let’s say that you want to always start up your computer with three folders open: your Desktop, your Documents, and your Downloads.

Go into Script Editor and get rid of whatever is currently there. Click “Record” and then switch to the Finder.

Hold down the Option key, pull down the Finder menu, and choose “Close All”.

Use Command-N to open a new window, and from that window open your Desktop folder.

Move your Desktop window to the upper left, and then arrange it to take up a bit less than a quarter of the screen.

Do the same for your Documents folder, but put it in the upper right.

Then do it again for your Downloads folder, but put it in the lower left.

Go back to AppleScript Editor and click “Stop”. You should have something like this:

tell application "Finder"


close every window

close Finder window 1

make new Finder window

set target of Finder window 1 to folder "Desktop" of folder "jerry" of folder "Users" of startup disk

set position of Finder window 1 to {99, 44}

set bounds of Finder window 1 to {99, 44, 995, 699}

make new Finder window

set position of Finder window 1 to {1008, 44}

set bounds of Finder window 1 to {1008, 44, 1934, 700}

set target of Finder window 1 to folder "Documents" of folder "jerry" of folder "Users" of startup disk

make new Finder window

set target of Finder window 1 to folder "Downloads" of folder "jerry" of folder "Users" of startup disk

set position of Finder window 1 to {102, 730}

end tell

Next, test it. There’s one odd thing in it: after it closes every window, it tries to close each window individually. But it can’t do that, because it just closed all of them.

Delete the lines that look like “Close Finder window 1”. Your script will look like:

tell application "Finder"


close every window

make new Finder window

set target of Finder window 1 to folder "Desktop" of folder "jerry" of folder "Users" of startup disk

set position of Finder window 1 to {99, 44}

set bounds of Finder window 1 to {99, 44, 995, 699}

make new Finder window

set position of Finder window 1 to {1008, 44}

set bounds of Finder window 1 to {1008, 44, 1934, 700}

set target of Finder window 1 to folder "Documents" of folder "jerry" of folder "Users" of startup disk

make new Finder window

set target of Finder window 1 to folder "Downloads" of folder "jerry" of folder "Users" of startup disk

set position of Finder window 1 to {102, 730}

end tell

You can save this as “Arrange Folders” with File Format “Application”, and every time you run it it will close all of your Finder windows and open up just the three you want, arranged the way you want them.

Simple Scripts


When you are writing your scripts, you will want to leave comments for yourself. You can preface any line with two dashes and that line will be ignored by AppleScript. You can write whatever you want on that line.

You can surround any set of lines with an open parentheses and two asterisks (close with two asterisks and a close parentheses) to cause AppleScript to ignore all of those lines.


This is a comment.

None of this is AppleScript


make new document

--close all of the windows we’ve opened

close all windows


A useful feature of AppleScript Editor is the ability to look at the “dictionary” of scriptable applications. If you look at the dictionary for Safari, Word, or Finder, you can see what things those programs can do, and what commands it takes to get them to do those things.

Create a news screen

We can do the same with web browser windows that we did with Finder windows. Type the following script into your AppleScript Editor and save it as an application called “Open News Overview”:

tell application "Safari"


--{xStart, yStart, xEnd, yEnd}

--open CNN news in upper left

set CNN to make new document

set CNNWindow to window 1

set bounds of CNNWindow to {10, 25, 600, 600}

set URL of CNN to ""

--open Google news in upper right

set Google to make new document

set GoogleWindow to window 1

set bounds of GoogleWindow to {610, 25, 1210, 600}

set URL of Google to ""

--open Memeorandum in lower left

set Memeorandum to make new document

set MemeorandumWindow to window 1

set bounds of MemeorandumWindow to {10, 625, 600, 1200}

set URL of Memeorandum to ""

--open blog in lower right

set Blog to make new document

set BlogWindow to window 1

set bounds of BlogWindow to {610, 625, 1210, 1200}

set URL of Blog to ""

end tell

This will open four windows arranged in a four-part square. You can edit the “bounds” of each window as you see fit.

Automatically Reload Web Pages

If you’ve paid attention to the “Save” screen for your scripts, there is an option which by default is unchecked called “Stay Open”. If you check this, your script will not quit when it is done. It will stay open, and can continue working.

AppleScripts work by sending and receiving “messages”. When we “told” Safari to make new documents and open URLs, our script sent the appropriate messages from our script to Safari.

If our script stays open, the system will also send it messages. Whenever an application “quits”, the system sends it a “quit” message. Our script gets that also (it automatically knows what to do when it receives that message: it quits). Another message our script receives is the “idle” message. The script receives the idle message when it isn’t doing anything.

Add the following lines to your “Open News Overview”:

on idle

tell application "Safari"

repeat with overviewWindow in every window

tell document of overviewWindow

set URL to URL

end tell

end repeat

end tell

return 60

end idle

This is what is called a “handler” in AppleScript. It “handles” messages. When you handle a message, you can send a return message. In this case, we’re telling the system that we’re done with our idle, and we would like to have another idle message in 60 seconds (“return 60”). By default, idle times are in 30-second increments. The first idle message is sent immediately after the script first goes idle in order to set the idle time to a different default.

This just repeats through every window of Safari and tells the document in that window to reload its URL (“set URL to URL”).

Shell Tell

You’ll notice that we have two tells, one inside of the other. First, we tell Safari to do something, and inside of that we are telling one of Safari’s documents to do something.

Repetitive Tasks

One of the things you can use scripts for is to automate boring and repetitive tasks. One of the features that AppleScript has to make it easy to automate repetitive tasks is the “repeat” structure. (Other scripting languages might call it “while”, “for”, or “foreach”, among other names.)

Everything between “repeat” and “end repeat” will be repeated until our instructions are done. We told it to repeat “with overviewWindow in every window”. Within that repeat “block”, the variable “overviewWindow” will start with Safari’s first window the first time through, and then repeat for each of Safari’s windows, until there are no more windows left.

We could have done the same thing by typing those lines between the “repeat” four times, as we did when we opened the windows to load the web pages. But this makes it a lot easier. And it means that if we later add a fifth web page (we’ll need an awfully big monitor) we won’t need to change this part of the script at all.

Talking Clock

One of the features of the standard additions is the current date and the ability to speak out loud.

set volume 1

copy the (current date) to theDate

say theDate as string

This makes your computer quiet (so you don’t bother other people near where you are using this tutorial), and then it copies the current date into a “variable” called “theDate”. Finally, it says whatever is in the variable “theDate”. The “say” command can only say text. If you try to say something other than text, AppleScript tries to send that thing a message called “say” instead of sending that item to “say”. So you need to tell AppleScript to convert that thing to text first. This is why we put the “as string” after “say theDate”.

You can look at what it is speaking by adding “get theDate” to the end of your script and then looking at your window titled “the result” (pull down the Windows menu to see this listed).

What it is speaking is a overly complex. It is reading the numbers without recognizing what they are. For example, it is reading 2002 as “twenty zero two” on the computer on which I’m writing this, and it is trying to speak the letters “AM” as a word “am”. We’ll need to help it along.

--be nice to our neighbors

set volume 1

on idle

--get the current date and time

copy the (current date) to theDate

--get the weekday

copy the weekday of theDate as string to theDay

--the hours (from 1 to 12)

copy the hours of theDate to theHour

if theHour is greater than 12 then

--13:00 to 23:00

set theHour to theHour - 12

set theAMPM to "PM"

else if theHour is "12" then


set theAMPM to "PM"

else if theHour is "0" then


set theHour to "12"

set theAMPM to "AM"


--01:00 to 11:00

set theAMPM to "AM"

end if

--the minutes (including preceding zero)

copy the minutes of theDate to theMinutes

if theMinutes is less than 10 then

set theMinutes to "0" & theMinutes

end if

say theDay & ", " & theHour & ":" & theMinutes & " " & theAMPM

return 60

end idle

The “ampersand” or “&” character glues together two pieces of text. In this case, we’re putting our variable “theHour” after our variable “theDay” and putting a comma and space between them. Then, adding theMinutes with a colon in front of it, and then theAMPM with a space in front of it. So it will end up looking like “Wednesday, 6:21 PM”.

Which then gets spoken.

Make sure you save your talking clock as an “Application” that will “Stay Open”.

Drag and Drop

When you drop a file onto a program, that program gets a message explaining what happened. You can let your AppleScripts accept those messages with the “open” handler. Make a script with nothing but:

on open (theItems)

repeat with anItem in theItems

tell application "Finder"

copy the name of item anItem to theName

end tell

display dialog theName

end repeat

end open

Save this as an Application called “Uploader”. Then, drop a few files on it. It should name each file in a dialog box.

You could use this feature to “tell” an FTP program such as Fetch or Interarchy to upload files automatically to your web site. When we do our upload, we’ll want to make sure we don’t upload things accidentally that we don’t want. Usually, we just want to upload images and text files (html files are usually text). Change your Uploader script to:

property allowedTypes : {"JPEG", "TEXT", "HTML"}

on open (theItems)

repeat with anItem in theItems

tell application "Finder"

copy the name of item anItem to theName

copy the file type of item anItem to theType

end tell

if theType is not in allowedTypes then

display dialog theType & " (" & theName & ") is not allowed for upload."

end if

end repeat

end open

We created a property (very much like a variable) that contains our allowed types. If the file is not an allowed type, we display a warning message. This allows you to add that type to the list of allowed types if you wish to.

Finally, we need to tell Fetch to upload the file. You may wish to look at Fetch’s dictionary.

property allowedTypes : {"JPEG", "TEXT", "HTML"}

--replace the following with your host’s information

property remoteHost : ""

property remotePass : "password"

property remoteUser : "username"

property basePath : "/path/to/upload/"

on open (theItems)

repeat with anItem in theItems

tell application "Finder"

copy the name of item anItem to theName

copy the file type of item anItem to theType

end tell

if theType is in allowedTypes then

copy basePath & theName to fullPath

tell application "Fetch"


store anItem host remoteHost path fullPath user remoteUser password remotePass with sftp

end tell


display dialog theType & " (" & theName & ") is not allowed for upload."

end if

end repeat

end open

The same script should work with Interarchy.

We’re using an “if” structure in this script. The “if” structure performs everything between “if” and “end if” depending on certain conditions. Often, there will be one set of statements before an “else” for if the condition works out, and another set of statements after an “else” for if the condition does not work out.

If “theType” is in the list of “allowedTypes”, we work with Fetch. Otherwise, we inform the user that this is not an allowed type.

Other Things You Might Do

Create a simple alarm clock: ask for a message, a time, and then sleep to that time and speak that message.

Publish a word processing document as RTF, HTML, and PDF--then automatically upload it using the other scripts.

Grab and write a random quote from a database of quotes.

Combine multiple PDF files into a single file.

AppleScript and the Command Line

If you use OS X and you use OS X’s command line or cron scripts, you can combine AppleScript with the command line. If you have no idea what that last sentence means, you can safely skip this chapter. This is not a tutorial on using the command line or on using Unix.

Running AppleScript from the Command Line

The easiest way to add an AppleScript to your command line application is through the “open” command. If you type “open ~/Documents/MyAppleScript” on the command line, your AppleScript called “MyAppleScript” in your Documents folder will run. You can use “open” in conjunction with cron, with Perl scripts, or with any of the shell scripting languages. Call it as you would any other command line utility.

You can also call—and create—AppleScripts with the “osa” commands. These are “osascript”, “osacompile”, and “osalang”. In some versions of OS X, you will need to call these by using the full path to the command, that is, “/usr/bin/osascript”. If you simply type “osascript” on the command line, it will give you an obscure error. The “osa” commands cannot be used via cron if you intend to call another application, such as Microsoft Word or FileMaker. Due to the internal workings of Mac OS X’s version of Unix, cron does not have permission to call GUI applications (this is a horribly simplified reason, look on the newsgroups if you want more information). The “open” command will work from cron, however.

And, of course, remember that if you plan on calling an application from AppleScript, that application must be able to run. If it is a GUI application, then your GUI must be running: you must be logged into your computer. If you leave OS X turned on but logged out, GUI applications will be unable to open.

AppleScript is great for those scripting tasks for which the Unix “pipeline” metaphor doesn’t make sense.

Calling the Command Line from AppleScript

You can also call your command-line scripts and utilities from within your AppleScripts. Use the “do shell script” command for that. For example, if you have a Perl script called “makeHTML” in “/usr/local/bin” you could use

do shell script "/usr/local/bin/makeHTML"

to run the command.

More Information

AppleScript: The Definitive Guide

AppleScript is an extremely useful tool for automating the repetitive things you do in Mac OS X applications, as well as for tying a long workflow together into a double-clickable icon. This Definitive Guide is a great reference for the AppleScript scripting language.

AppleScript on Negative Space

I’ve written several application-specific tutorials and examples on my blog and web site.

Introduction to AppleScript Overview

This is Apple’s guide to AppleScript. It’s more than a bit technical, but also comprehensive.

“The best book on programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland; but that’s because it’s the best book on anything for the layman.”

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Translation is considered a kind of modification, so you may distribute translations of the Document under the terms of section 4. Replacing Invariant Sections with translations requires special permission from their copyright holders, but you may include translations of some or all Invariant Sections in addition to the original versions of these Invariant Sections. You may include a translation of this License, and all the license notices in the Document, and any Warranty Disclaimers, provided that you also include the original English version of this License and the original versions of those notices and disclaimers. In case of a disagreement between the translation and the original version of this License or a notice or disclaimer, the original version will prevail.

If a section in the Document is Entitled “Acknowledgements”, “Dedications”, or “History”, the requirement (section 4) to Preserve its Title (section 1) will typically require changing the actual title.

9. Termination

You may not copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute the Document except as expressly provided under this License. Any attempt otherwise to copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute it is void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this License.

However, if you cease all violation of this License, then your license from a particular copyright holder is reinstated (a) provisionally, unless and until the copyright holder explicitly and finally terminates your license, and (b) permanently, if the copyright holder fails to notify you of the violation by some reasonable means prior to 60 days after the cessation.

Moreover, your license from a particular copyright holder is reinstated permanently if the copyright holder notifies you of the violation by some reasonable means, this is the first time you have received notice of violation of this License (for any work) from that copyright holder, and you cure the violation prior to 30 days after your receipt of the notice.

Termination of your rights under this section does not terminate the licenses of parties who have received copies or rights from you under this License. If your rights have been terminated and not permanently reinstated, receipt of a copy of some or all of the same material does not give you any rights to use it.

10. Future revisions of this license

The Free Software Foundation may publish new, revised versions of the GNU Free Documentation License from time to time. Such new versions will be similar in spirit to the present version, but may differ in detail to address new problems or concerns. See

Each version of the License is given a distinguishing version number. If the Document specifies that a particular numbered version of this License “or any later version” applies to it, you have the option of following the terms and conditions either of that specified version or of any later version that has been published (not as a draft) by the Free Software Foundation. If the Document does not specify a version number of this License, you may choose any version ever published (not as a draft) by the Free Software Foundation. If the Document specifies that a proxy can decide which future versions of this License can be used, that proxy’s public statement of acceptance of a version permanently authorizes you to choose that version for the Document.

11. Relicensing

“Massive Multiauthor Collaboration Site” (or “MMC Site”) means any World Wide Web server that publishes copyrightable works and also provides prominent facilities for anybody to edit those works. A public wiki that anybody can edit is an example of such a server. A “Massive Multiauthor Collaboration” (or “MMC”) contained in the site means any set of copyrightable works thus published on the MMC site.

“CC-BY-SA” means the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license published by Creative Commons Corporation, a not-for-profit corporation with a principal place of business in San Francisco, California, as well as future copyleft versions of that license published by that same organization.

“Incorporate” means to publish or republish a Document, in whole or in part, as part of another Document.

An MMC is “eligible for relicensing” if it is licensed under this License, and if all works that were first published under this License somewhere other than this MMC, and subsequently incorporated in whole or in part into the MMC, (1) had no cover texts or invariant sections, and (2) were thus incorporated prior to November 1, 2008.

The operator of an MMC Site may republish an MMC contained in the site under CC-BY-SA on the same site at any time before August 1, 2009, provided the MMC is eligible for relicensing.