How to fix drag and drop not working on Mac

Good old “drag and drop”. It’s the cornerstone of a graphical interface and a super-intuitive way to move content from one virtual point to another. As an early pioneer of graphical interfaces, you would expect Apple’s macOS to completely nail this particular functionality.

However, over the past decade or so, some unlucky macOS users have faced a strange situation where drag and drop suddenly stopped working on Mac. If you suddenly find that you can’t drag and drop on your Mac, here are some things you can try.

Also, we have created a short YouTube video that covers some of the items we mentioned below in the article so check first and come back here if your issue is not resolved.

Are you running the latest macOS?

Stop! Before we go any further, consider that many drag and drop Mac issues have been fixed in newer versions of macOS. We haven’t included any fixes specific to versions like High Sierra here, so (if you haven’t already) consider upgrading to the latest version of macOS your computer supports. At the time of writing, it’s macOS Catalina, and it’s well worth the switch for most people.

Software update window

Did the problem occur after something changed?

Did your drag and drop woes start right after something else happened? Perhaps a system update, new hardware, or a new app? While it might just be random, one option is to use a Time Machine snapshot to restore your Mac to before the change was made.

If not, you can try manually reversing the change, by undoing the last change made before the problem started. Of course, that shift and your drag and drop problems might just happen together by accident, but it’s a likely place to start.

Is the problem mouse specific?

Wireless mouse on the desk

It is always worth eliminating suspects in any computer diagnostic procedure, and the first question to answer is whether the mouse or computer is faulty. For example, if you are using a MacBook, connect an external mouse and see if the problem persists. That could be a clue as to where you should focus your efforts on fixing it.

Mouse culprit: Battery, Maintenance & Bluetooth

If it’s a specific mouse that doesn’t play ball, what can you do? If you’re using a wireless mouse, try turning Bluetooth on and off, unpairing and pairing, or removing and reinserting the mouse’s USB dongle. Whichever applies to your model.

Workbench with various tools

Check the buttons for dirt and make sure that the USB plug or cable is not damaged. Some mice, like the first-generation Apple Magic Mouse, are notorious for constantly disconnecting while you work. This can interrupt mouse actions like dragging and dropping something.

Is the problem application specific?

Does drag and drop not work on Mac between some apps but work fine with others? If only certain applications do not work correctly with this normal mouse functionality, you should seek answers related to the specific software in question.

If it’s happening all over the place, then it sounds like a system-level problem is possible. Let’s assume that you have eliminated the mouse hardware itself as the culprit.

Restart the Finder application

The Finder app is the beating heart of your Mac’s file management system. If it swells, you will lose the ability to drag files from one place to another. The good news is that restarting Finder is quick and easy:

  1. Press command + option + exit.
  2. inside Force quit the app list, search Searcher.
  3. Click Relaunch button.
Selected search engine in Force Quit Application window

Now just wait a second and Finder will restart. If you’re lucky, the drag and drop problem will be solved.

Restart your Mac

If restarting Finder isn’t enough, restart your Mac completely. For some people, just put the Mac to sleep and wake it up again. However, modern machines restart too quickly, which may just be a waste of time.

So do a full reboot, but remember to save any work you have open. Just to be safe.

Check your touchpad settings

In some cases, it turns out that the magic trackpad on the MacBook may simply fail for no apparent reason. We’ve heard people complain about this after the update.

Regardless, if your trackpad, in particular, seems to be keeping drag and drop from working on your Mac, check its sensitivity and other settings, return them to their defaults, or makes more sense if something goes wrong.

Touchpad sensitivity setting

Just hold command + space to launch Spotlight Search. Type touchpad and press enter.

Reset your preferences

If none of these fixes work, then we’re afraid you’ll have to resort to a light technical solution. macOS uses “plist” files to store your preferences for different aspects of your Mac. We’ll delete those files, force macOS to rebuild, and reset them to defaults. Specifically, we will remove the mouse and touchpad-related plist files.

Before you do that, we strongly recommend you make a Time Machine backup of your Mac. This ensures that you can always undo things if something goes wrong.

Note: This no longer seems to be the right solution for macOS Catalina, as we were unable to locate the relevant preference files in the user-accessible section of the system drive.

First, start Finder and then navigate to Gallery > Preferences. Once there, delete these .plist files:

  • com.apple.driver.AppleHIDMouse.plist
  • com.apple.driver.AppleBl BluetoothMultitouch.trackpad.plist
  • com.apple.driver.AppleBl BluetoothMultitouch.mouse.plist
  • com.apple.AppleMultitouchTrackpad.plist
  • com.apple.preference.trackpad.plist
Options in Gallery

Once these files have been deleted, restart your Mac and check if drag and drop now works as expected. macOS should have rebuilt these files with their defaults intact. Hopefully that fixes your drag and drop problem at the same time.

What A Drag!

Mainframe problems can be less stressful than minor problems. Despite what you might think, at least when something goes wrong, you can reinstall everything or simply replace or repair the damaged hardware. When a problem like this occurs, it can eat up your hours and defy explanation.

Hopefully, these specific steps have solved your problematic mouse issue and helped you drag and drop things everywhere once again.

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