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In Mail, I can only change the background of the entire email.

How do I do this just for highlighted text?

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Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do this. Here's how I do it.

  • ⌘ + T: to open up Fonts window
  • click on the document background color icon and Colors window will open
  • choose the highlight background color you desire note:
    • Note: this will change the background color of your entire email
  • Select the text that you want highlighted and cut (⌘ + X)
  • Go back to Colors window and change background color of entire email back to original color (usually white).
  • Paste (⌘ + V) the text back into email, and you will see the text with your desired background color
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    Seriously ridiculous that apple doesn't allow you to change background color of selected text any other way...
    – johnL
    Feb 12 '15 at 18:56
  • This is hillarious and it works! :)
    – Viktor
    Nov 26 '15 at 13:31
  • not working for me on macOS Sierra Nov 18 '16 at 4:14
  • for me it works on macOS Sierra Mar 12 '17 at 19:36

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