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I don't know the root password on my system and I'm trying to start Apache.

$ sudo apachectl start

WARNING: Improper use of the sudo command could lead to data loss
or the deletion of important system files. Please double-check your
typing when using sudo. Type "man sudo" for more information.

To proceed, enter your password, or type Ctrl-C to abort.

Sorry, try again.
Sorry, try again.
Sorry, try again.
sudo: 3 incorrect password attempts

------- or -----------

$ sudo su apachectl start

(same results)

My user account is an admin account. This is a refurbished MacBook Pro - new to me.

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Just wanted to add something here, it's: apachectl start, not apachect1 start, notiche the L instead of a 1. –  Greduan Oct 14 '12 at 22:41
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3 Answers

This is standard behaviour for a Mac, even if the user is in the Administrators group. The password is that of your user account, not the root account (which is typically disabled by default). OS X asks for your password in a number of situations, not just when using sudo.

If you've forgotten your user account password, you can reset it following Apple's instructions.

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This is the correct answer, but also something to note: If you have no password set you can't sudo - you need to set a password. support.apple.com/kb/HT4103 –  Alex Oct 15 '12 at 2:41
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You should always know the root pw of your machine. If not, you can reset it with the installation disks.

But what am I confused about is if you can use your admin user ID and password to override it?

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The root account is disabled on OS X by default. Sudo allows a user to run commands and make system wide changes as the root user when necessary, rather than being the root user all the time. Sudo is used to allow more control over who has root privileges on a system by assigning certain users administrative rights and not sharing a common 'root password'. –  macaco Oct 14 '12 at 22:50
The question said sudo or su, su requires this password. –  Josiah Oct 15 '12 at 14:57
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The root password for Mac's are not enabled by default. To enable them check here --> http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1528?viewlocale=en_US&locale=en_US

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The root password isn't required here, and shouldn't be turned on. –  Alex Oct 15 '12 at 2:43
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