Special characters in Mac OS X

Insert ASCII accented character

Windows users don’t despair, you need this page: Using ASCII characters in Windows programs.

Accented characters: acutes, macrons, etc

An OS X Lion gem to get you started. In almost all programs on the Mac you can enter accented characters really easily. If you wish to write café for instance all you have to do when you get to e is hold down the e key momentarily and up pops a little palette with all the accented “e” choices. Click on the one you want, or press the number key below it. In this case I click on é or press the 2 key.

How easy was that?

You can also navigate to the letter you want with the arrow keys and press Enter. In some programs—Wordpress’s editor for instance—I find that clicking with the mouse or using the arrow/Enter method doubles up the letter, so I tend to use the number key option.

For everything else

There are several other ways of inserting special characters (aka ASCII characters) into your deathless prose when using Mac OS X. One way is to use your Mac’s standard keyboard shortcuts as revealed by the Keyboard Viewer. You can use the viewer to insert characters, but for characters you use often it’s much easier to memorize their key combinations, many of which are intuitive – for instance, Opt+o gives ø.

US keyboard viewer OS X

Before you can access the Keyboard Viewer easily you need to add the Input Menu to the Menulet section of the Menu Bar at the top right of your screen. To do this:

  1. open System Preferences (click  at top left on your screen, then click System Preferences);
  2. select Language & Text;
  3. click Input Sources tab, you should see the dialogue box shown below;
  4. click on the checkbox labelled “Show input menu in menu bar”;
  5. for arcane reasons which I’ll reveal in a subsequent post, while you’re at it check the Unicode Hex Input checkbox;
  6. close the window.

Language and text input sources OS X Lion

We can now open the Viewer from the Menu Bar:

  1. click on the Language icon which should now show at the top right of your screen as a small national flag on the Menulet area of the Menu Bar. In my case, because in New Zealand we use the standard US keyboard it shows the Stars & Stripes. Yours may be a Union Jack or some other national flag;Open Keyboard Viewer OS X Lion
  2. click on “Show Keyboard Viewer“.
  3. You should see a Keyboard Viewer similar to the first one below:
  4. If you hold down:
    1. the shift key you’ll see the second keyboard,
    2. the Option key you’ll see the third keyboard,
    3. hold down both Shift and Option and you’ll see the last keyboard.

keyboard viewer variations

“So what!” I hear you cry, “How does it work?”

Here’s how: whether or not the Keyboard Viewer is visible you can use the main keyboard keys in conjunction with the modifier keys (Option and Shift) to insert the associated characters. It’s easily explained with a few examples:

If you press:

  • option+r you’ll insert ®
  • option+v you’ll insert √
  • option+k you’ll insert ˚ (k for Kelvin)
  • option+p you’ll insert π
  • option+y you’ll insert ¥
  • option+4 ($) you’ll insert ¢

You’ll note that some of combinations, particularly the ones I’ve listed above and the em dash below, are easily remembered because of a logical link between the keyboard key and the special character.

These option+key combinations should work universally unless you’ve hijacked the key combinations for other functions. The option+shift+key combos should work in most Mac programs but it’s not universal. For instance, Firefox uses many of the option+shift combos for its own mysterious purposes. This isn’t a problem for most of us, the option+shift characters are less commonly used.

If you press:

  • option+shift+- you’ll insert the em dash: —
  • option+shift+k you’ll insert 
  • option+shift+p you’ll insert ∏
  • option+shift+2 you’ll insert €

When working with text you can also use the Keyboard Viewer directly by holding the option and/or shift keys on your keyboard and clicking on the appropriate key on the Keyboard Viewer.

In my next post I’ll cover the Character Viewer and subsequent to that we’ll master the slightly geeky but vastly powerful Unicode method of inserting special characters.


Related links on Just Wondering:

Using ASCII characters in windows programs.

Special Characters for XHTML