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How to arrange and sort files in Finder using Mac OS X Lion

How to arrange and sort files in Finder using Mac OS X Lion

With the introduction of OS X Lion, Apple changed the way file sorting works in Finder. Unfortunately, it has left some users confused as to why selecting Arrange By > Name isn’t working in Finder’s Column view.

An interesting issue has been plaguing some Mac users running OS X 10.7 Lion. When browsing in Column view, Finder sometimes won’t let you sort files and folders alphabetically by name. Even if the correct setting is selected, Finder simply refuses to comply. Luckily, there is a quick fix for those affected by this problem.

Lion’s new way of arranging and sorting in Finder

In previous versions of Mac OS X, the Arrange By function in Finder simply changed the order in which files and folders were displayed based on the user’s selection. In OS X 10.7 Lion, there are two ways to sort: Arrange By and Sort By. Arrange By now groups files and folders into categories. For example, if you select Arrange By > Kind, all of the items in the current folder will be separated into groups for Documents, Images, PDFs, etc. The same is true if you choose to arrange by Date, Size, Application, etc.

Arrange files in Lion Finder

Kind of handy, right? So what if you’ve got arranged groups of files that you want listed in order of size? That’s where the new Sort By feature comes in. When holding down the Option key, the Arrange By menu changes to Sort By. You’ll see many of he same options as Arrange By – Sort By merely reorders the items that are already contained in the groups.

Replicating the issue

With that quick overview out of the way, let’s get back to the issue of sorting not working in Finder’s Column view. It all comes down to a conflict between Arrange By and Sort By. Even though you’ve got your Arrange By menu set to Name, the Sort By function is likely overriding it with another setting. Here’s how you can replicate the issue on any Mac running Lion:

  1. Open a Finder window and select View > as Columns in the menu bar.
  2. Go to View > Arrange By > Kind in the menu bar
  3. While holding down the Option key, go to View > Sort By > Date Added. Notice the order of the files and how they are categorized.
  4. Next, release the Option key and go to View > Arrange By > Name.

Whoops! That didn’t go as planned, did it? As you can see, your files are not arranged alphabetically by name. The groups are gone, but the files are still sorted by date!

The solution

Three easy steps resolve the issue:

  1. Open the folder you’re having trouble with in Finder.
  2. Go to View > Arrange By > None in the menu bar.
  3. Hold the Option key and go to View > Sort By > Name.

Done! It’s interesting that this behavior only occurs in Column view and not Icon, List, or Cover Flow. One would expect Arrange By > Name to override whatever setting Sort By previously had, but that is not the case. In the future, it might be easier to leave Arrange By set to None and only use the Sort By setting to rearrange files. This behaves exactly like Arrange By used to in OS X versions prior to Lion.

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15 Comments Have Been Posted (Leave Your Response)

You know, I’ve had this site bookmarked for a long time because: it does have some really useful stuff on it, and it has a great layout. But it would be so cool if you could post something a little more frequently…It’s June 24 and the latest article is May 27…just a little feedback. Have a great day.

I have a question. With Mac 10.4 I could search documents in Finder by comments. Now with 10.7 I am not able to do so: when opening view options I cannot check “comments” (nor “version”). Can anybody help? Thank you very much.


Lion supports searching Spotlight Comments as well. It should do it automatically from the main search box in any Finder window. If for some reason it’s not working, try this:

Enter a search term, then when the filtering options appear at the top of the results, click the round + button. In the dropdown menu to the left, click “Other.” A popup box will appear where you can check the box next to “Spotlight Comments.” Click OK, enter your comment search term in the secondary search box.

Hopefully this helps!

It’s really sad I had to spend time looking up this solution to Apple’s ongoing Finder design flubs. I appreciate your article, but really, can’t Apple do a better job with this essential application? Of all the woes associated with Microsoft Windows over their years — really, too many to mention — it at least never refused to sort files by name.

Thank you for taking the time to write this up. I was seriously baffled as to why I couldn’t sort by name, which is presumably the most straightforward thing anyone would want to do with a list of files! Thanks for preventing any further gray hairs. :-)

Yeah, the Mac is WAY to complicated. We should be able to just directly click on Name, Kind, whatever column is there and that will be the column by which things are sorted or arranged. An arrow up or down should appear, just like in Windows, making you toggle between ascending and descending. The Mac is really backward in this feature.

I installed Mountain Lion a week ago, and there are some strange things it does. This is maybe the most bizarre, because for me finding files by name is still usually the fastest way. Mega thanks for this post.

After being a PC user for years, sorting by a particular column was easy – just click on the title of the column. Click it once and it would sort ascending, click it again and it would sort descending. Seems cumbersome to have to click a menu to do something so simple.

Thanks! It works!

Thank you so much for this, saves a lot of stress with organising my files!

Thank you so much this arrange v’s sort in finder issue has been driving me crazy. What were Apple thinking?

I now have it ‘sorted’!

Thanks very much for this it worked.
I was so angry with apple over this one I was set to by a Microsoft Windows machine.

I am tearing my hair out–almost– I want my files organised alphabetically and the contents of those folders arranged by date created I cannot sort this — the sort by is greyed out in the list of files and if I change to date created in the top box the Folders change to this arrangement too. Surely what I want is reasonable– and achievable.
Apple help pages just post problems but never seem to resolve anything — this site seems much better so i now have it bookmarked– thank you

Desmond Horsfield
April 20th, 2016, 7:26 PM

I’ve been reading posts like these for years now: “OH NO!… Not another unnecessary Mac “improvement” Sound familiar? The ongoing frustration on display in posts like these from previously gung-ho Mac users must surely be sounding alarm bells somewhere inside the Mac organization… The simple truth is that a lot of Mac fans who have suddenly found that even the lowly but gloriously functional Mac method of sorting files has now become a time wasting nightmare. Don’t you get it, Mac? They have had enough of your microscopic “improvements”. Surely someone will notices that this is yet another clear indication of how Mac is ruthlessly and stupidly alienating it’s customer. Incessant, arbitrary and redundant changes to a system that was beautifully simple in concept, design and function, indicates only one thing: Mac now must have a vast stable of bored “developers” desperately trying to justify their existence. It’s the Pretzel approach…”yeah the pretzel is perfect, a time proven shape which works beautifully as tasty snack food, but let’s improve it anyway by adding a couple of new curves and a nasty new topping so we can keep our jobs… if people don’t like it, we’ll fix it again later” Sort of like mice nibbling away at the edges until no one will eat it. Result: user fury and Mac decline. Wake up… your public are going to dump you. In design, simple is always best. You are not immortal or invincible… no company is if it fails to listen to it’s customer base… That’s “BASE”… ie, the people at the bottom.. They are the source of you success… not the nerds and techno-freaks!

This does not work. I cant arrange mp3s in the order I want…