Tagging – A nice look on Mac Power Users

The latest episode of the Mac Power Users podcast featured a discussion with Brett Terpstra about tagging. While they do not discuss tagging specifically in the context of DEVONthink, most of what they discuss is software agnostic.


I’ve been a proponent and practitioner of tagging (my system constantly evolving). I use tags in Finder and DEVONthink liberally (and I love that DT and Finder tags relate nicely to one another!). Nevertheless I always love hearing how other people are doing things, the sorts of taxonomies they apply, the conventions the employ or avoid, etc.

So whether you’re on the fence about tagging, or a tagging veteran, I’d recommend giving it a listen.

Hi Scott,

I recently listened to this episode last week and I was intrigued. I’m fairly new to DT and actually only have DTTG on iOS at the moment but I’ve been thinking about how to set up my system and this episode seemed very appropriate. Brett says he uses a fairly shallow folder structure and then uses tags to organise files at a lower level of granularity.

I was wondering how/if this approach would work in DT? From what I’ve read, the AI engine gets more accurate the more focused the contents of a group folder is. But I also read there isn’t much difference under the hood between groups and tags. Does the AI take into account tags as well as groups?

I’d be interested to hear more on how you use DT with tags.



Sure, as with most good taxonomies, Brett’s is largely system-agnostic. You want to use it with Finder? DEVONthink? No problem.

Your concern regarding the utility of the AI is valid but as you say, there’s little distinction between tags and groups in DEVONthink, largely thanks to the concept of replication. If you want groups to behave essentially identical to tags by default, you can toggle the “Exclude groups from tagging” setting in the properties for a database to be un-checked. Now all groups will also be available as “tags” that can be added or removed from documents in their Info window or the tag bar at the bottom of the document.

The only time this gets a bit complicated is if you have a large number of indexed files or directories. In general replicating indexed files can get a bit clumsy under certain circumstances.

? Where are you seeing this behavior?

Ack! I am mistaken!

When “Exclude Groups from Tagging” is un-checked, dragging behaviour is the same: it moves the document.

Ahh… glad to clarify. Now if you apply a Group Tag to a file, it should replicate into that group. For example, if I have a folder named Test, adding the Tag “Test” should replicate it to that group, leaving the one you’re working with in place.

A linguistic aside:

For one curious about language this is an interesting use of the term “agnostic”, our language, i.e. English, is always evolving, (unlike some languages) and I have not come across this usage before. Below I give the Shorter OED definitions and I wonder how long it will take for them to pick up this usage which may need a new entry i it becomes more widely spread.

agnostic agˈnɒstɪk ♫ noun & adjective. m19.

A noun. A person who holds the view that nothing can be known of the existence of God or of anything beyond material phenomena. Also, a person who is uncertain or non-committal about a particular thing. m19.
B adjective. Of or pertaining to agnostics or agnosticism. l19.
Coined by T. H. Huxley (OED); but occurs earlier in a letter of 1859 from Isabel Arundell.
agnostical adjective l19.
agnostically adverb l19.
agnosticism -sɪz(ə)m noun the doctrine or tenets of agnostics, an agnostic attitude l19.
ORIGIN: from a-10 + gnostic.
⇐ agnosia Agnus ⇒

Interesting! While of course familiar with the definition you provided (indeed, that original meaning is the way I’m most familiar with the term), I’ve encountered it fairly often with respect to things being “platform agnostic” or “system agnostic”. Seems to come up a lot in tech-related stuff.

While in this case, and perhaps most cases, I suppose “generalizable” would be a more accurate term: “Brett’s taxonomy is generalizable to most other contexts”.

Anyhow, etymology is endlessly fascinating! :smiley:

I’ve recently taken the plunge into tagging as part of a process to develop a workflow with Apple Mail. I tag mail, then use an Alfred workflow (with DT script) to send emails to my Bulk File in DTP. Another Alfred workflow (with script) sends attachments to a separate file in DT. I do keep some emails in a few “Holding” mailboxes in Mail, but send most to DT or delete them. I’m using both MailTags and MailButler to give Mail the extra boost in features. So far, this setup seems to be working well for me though there are still a few hiccups.

It’s great to look at an email, quickly tag it, send it on its way with a keystroke to the right file in DTP and have the original deleted in Mail all in the same moment. It would almost be perfect except that my tags don’t always stick. Often they do. But then they don’t. Why? Is it my script? Is it MailTags? Is it OS X Sierra? Is it Devonthink? Has anyone else experienced this?

Here’s another question: I only use Finder tags in MailTags so I can keep things as consistent as possible among applications. How does DT sync with Finder tags? If I enter a new tag in the Finder Preferences, does it show up in DTP? Does it take some time before it does? If there’s way to sync all of these together with Finder, that would be great.

One possible tweak to this system for me would be to have my DT file of attachments sync with a folder sitting on my desktop, for the possible convenience of having those available outside of the database and at the ready. It sounds like it would be easy, but I haven’t been able to set it up successfully. If I had the desktop folder receive attachments from Mail, then DT could index that folder. But since they go to DT first, I would have to export them manually on a regular basis to keep that desktop updated, right? I’ve had trouble getting attachments (in Sierra) to go from Mail to the Downloads folder or other locations outside Mail except for DT. That script to send attachments seems to work, so that’s the direction I go.

Hope to use the above link and listen to the session soon.

Thanks for the discussion,


Not sure about your issue with tags not “sticking”, I have heard of Mail Butler and MailTags but do not use them personally.

Re: Finder tags and DTPO tags, It’s not so much that they “sync” but that tags in one are readable by the other.

So, if I have a file in Finder and NOT in DEVONthink, and I tag that with a new finder tag, DEVONthink doesn’t know about it. However, if I import or index that newly-tagged file, the tag will come along as an attribute of that file and be created in DTPO as well.

Re: your last thing about attachments in Finder & DTPO: Indexing is definitely the way to go. I’d suggest setting up a single root folder that will contain your attachements and any new sub-folders. Index this root directory in DTPO. Have your scripts do your tagging and whatever then move them to this directory in Finder not DEVONthink. Any new files you add, or new directories you create, DEVONthink will refresh its indexes and those attachements and directories will appear in both DTPO and Finder (tags and all).

(Just be careful, if you do any subsequent re-organizing in DTPO, you’ll have to go through a round of “Move Into Database” and “Move Into External Folder” for those organizational changes be reflected in Finder.)

Yeah, it’s strange behavior. I may have to post the script in the other forum as that might be the issue. It probably needs refining. They’re just snippets that I brought together.

Thanks for clarifying that issue. That will help me plan ahead and save time in the setup.