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How to delete a file that macOS says is in use

Sometimes macOS tries to help you by not letting you perform actions that would destroy the system or software you are using. There are several levels of warnings that you can choose to turn off or by.

When you have files in the Recycle Bin, select Finder > Empty Recycle Bin asks you to ask if you actually intended to empty the trash. You click Clear Trash to continue. Choice of choices when choosing Finder > Empty trash bypasses the warning. (19659004) IDG

MacOS asks you when you try to delete items using Option plus Finder> Empty trash. [DukanogsåtrykkepåCommand-Option-Shift-Deleteforåkringgåden1

9659006] But if macOS thinks a file is in use by a program or system, the same bypass doesn't help. When you empty the Recycle Bin, your Mac displays a warning dialog that reads: "The operation cannot be completed because the item" name "is in use." Three buttons are displayed: Skip, Stop and Continue.

In a support message, Apple recommends a number of steps you should take, which can be summarized as a cascading order. Try an item and then try to use empty trash:

  • Quit the app
  • Restart your Mac normally.
  • Restart your Mac in safe mode, delete boot entries that may be the problem, and then restart normally.
  • ] Start up with macOS Recovery and use Disk Utility to repair the drive.

You can also use the Terminal command lsof which tracks all files that are in use, even if the lowest of the low-level parts of the system. In Terminal, type lsof | grep -i followed by a space and part of the file name, and see if it shows which app or system component still has its hooks. (You can read more about lsof in this previous Mac 911 column.)

Sometimes a file only will not go and you have done everything else. It is a last resort method you can use: Delete immediately. Apple added this choice to El Capitan after it was deleted. I documented it at the end of 2015.

  mac911 delete immediately in trash IDG

In the Trash folder, you can delete items without further ado.

But it changes further: You can no longer trigger It anywhere in the Finder except in the Trash. Select one or more files in the Recycle Bin and check-click. Select Delete Immediately and confirm the deletion. There is no going back!

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question from Macworld reader Vince.

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