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A message saying you have lots of things on the clipboard is common and nothing to worry about. It's simply managing the information you have copied into memory.

Once in awhile I get a pop-up that says I've put a lot of things on the clipboard and do I want to save it? I don't even know what clipboard is or where it is.

In this excerpt from Answercast #100 I look at how the clipboard works to store information in, and between, programs for copying and pasting.

Lots of things on the clipboard

Ok, that's actually a fairly easy one - and I understand that it takes a lot of people by surprise.

It all relates to "copy/paste" or "cut/copy/paste."

Cut and paste

Let's use cut and paste for example. Say you're in a text editor, you're editing some email; or you're in Word, you're editing a document; you select some text and you press Control-X to cut the text. In other words remove the text from wherever it is.

You then go somewhere else and you type Control-V to paste in the text. In other words, whatever you had just cut and removed in one place, gets pasted or placed in the place you're currently at.

Well, in the interim that information had to be stored somewhere. And where it is stored is a place called the "clipboard."

Clipboard stores information

  • When you "cut" you are actually deleting something and placing it in this so-called clipboard.

  • When you "copy," you are copying from wherever it is and placing the copy in the clipboard.

  • Then when you "paste," the definition of paste says "take whatever is in the clipboard and put it here".

That's how we allow different programs to copy and paste to other programs. For example, you can copy something out of Word and maybe paste it into an email that you are composing. That happens through the clipboard.

The clipboard is the central repository for this information. And in fact, if you take a look at the icons in the various programs, you'll see that at least one or two of them look very much like a little tiny clipboard. That's why.

Clipboard warnings

Now, the warning you are getting about having a "large amount of information in the clipboard".

For example, let's go back to Word for a minute. The clipboard gets managed in a couple of different ways. So far what I've described is that information is actually placed in the clipboard. So if you copy a couple of words out of one place, those couple of words are placed in the clipboard.

Some programs don't do that. What they do instead is they place in the clipboard, a reference to what has been copied.

So for example, in Word, if you say select an entire document (that's the Control-A keystroke, by the way) and then you type Control-C to copy that entire document to the clipboard, Word doesn't actually do that. What it does is it places in the clipboard a special identifier that says, "Hey, I've got this big old piece of text and it's available to anybody who wants it from the clipboard; you'll just need to ask me for it in order to get it."

So the information, such as the entire document, isn't actually placed in the clipboard - but a reference to it is. That reference is only good as long as Word is running.

In other words, since Word said, "Ask me for this if you need it," well if Word goes away, it's not around to be asked. So if you were to actually exit Word after having made such a large copy of something, then Word needs to say, "Hey, you know what? I put a lot of stuff on the clipboard; it's going to go away if I close; what do you want me to do? Do you want me to keep running? Do you want me to actually put a copy of the document on the clipboard? I can do that? Or do you just want me to empty the clipboard and exit?"

Those are the kinds of options that you get. It all has to do with the way that the clipboard works.

Copying large amounts of information to the clipboard

Normally, and in my experience anyway with the way I happen to use Word, it is almost always with Word that I run into this situation.

What happens is I've got a document and that document may have some pictures in it. That immediately makes it a very large thing with respect to the clipboard. If you copy a few pages and those pages have pictures in them - all of a sudden you're putting a bunch of text, a bunch of pictures, a bunch of other things on this thing we call the clipboard.

It's available for another application or maybe even another instance of Word. You could be paste it into a new place in your document or into a new document - but the fact is it's still all running through the clipboard.

So, in my case, I'm usually done with it by the time Word asks me - and I just say, "Go ahead and erase the clipboard; that will be fine."

But it's really up to you and what you're doing. If you're done, it's fine to go ahead and let Word close down and erase the clipboard (or whatever program it is that's asking you.) But that's all it really is.

The clipboard is the link between cut and paste; it's the link between copy and paste. It's this repository in the middle that holds what it is you are copy/pasting or cut and pasting while the operation is in progress.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

End of Answercast 100 Back to - Audio Segment

Article C6376 - March 31, 2013 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

April 1, 2013 3:26 PM

Your explanation raises a question. If you copy a Word document as you describe and the clipboard only stores a link, what if you edit the document before pasting? Do you get the original version you actually copied or the edited version? If you get the original, then it's more than just a link that is being saved.

Mark J
April 2, 2013 3:43 AM

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by original or edited version, but MS Word and many other programs create a temporary file which contains the contents of the document in its current edited state. This file is essentially the contents what you see on the screen. So, when you click copy or cut, the link points to that file or the portion of that file being copied. I assume that's what you mean by the edited version.

April 7, 2013 1:31 PM

I think his question was along the lines of: Suppose I type "The brown quick fox," copy that text, then change it to "The quick brown fox," and then click paste elsewhere in the document.

If Word is only putting a link to the copied text on the clipboard, then wouldn't the pasted text be the revised "The quick brown fox" rather than the originally copied "The Brown quick fox?"

I've never thought of that Word question being related to a link in my document. I always assumed it was more of a memory management (even if it's not physical RAM but virtual memory on the hard drive. Word is thinking that you're finished with your document, so it wants to know if you want to free up the memory because you may be likely finished with the copied stuff.

I'm not going to say I'm right and Leo is wrong because honestly I don't know. But that's how I've always thought of it: from a memory management stand point.

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