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I noticed that sometimes ctrl-L selects all and sometimes A works instead. What is the difference between the two?

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A will select all geometry.

⎈ CtrlL will select all geometry that is connected to your current selection.

For example, from this state in edit mode:
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Pressing A will result in this:
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Pressing ⎈ CtrlL will result in this:
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In edit mode Ctrl+L selects all geometry that is linked to the geometry you have selected. So if you have a mesh with two (or more) 'loose parts', and you select one face of one of those partes, hitting ctrl+L will select all the faces in that part, but not the other one(s). While A will select every face in the mesh regardless of being in another part.

That's why Ctrl+L doesn't do anything unless you already have something selected.

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A selects all geometry. ctrlL selects linked geometry. In edit mode, if you have geometry selected, it would let you select all of the geometry connected. Here is a quote from docs.blender.org:

Select geometry connected to already selected elements. This is often useful when a mesh has disconnected, overlapping parts, where isolating it any other way would be tedious.

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  • $\begingroup$ No, invert selection is ctrl+i. ctrl+L is "select all linked". $\endgroup$ May 20 at 2:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexandre Marcati I edited my response. $\endgroup$
    – RMCodes
    May 22 at 19:29

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