Unlike on Windows, the standard Mac keyboard does a lot more than just type your regular alphabets, numbers, and special characters. Hidden underneath those ordinarily labeled keys is an extraordinary powerhouse of special special symbols that one requires every now and then. Characters like ‘µ’ and ‘©’, which are so difficult to type on Windows, can easily be typed on Mac OS X, provided you know which keys to hit.
In the five years I suffered through Windows before switching to the Mac (and no, I’m not biased at all), I was never able to figure out how to type the ‘µ’ when writing ‘µTorrent’. Sure, all I needed to do was Google it up and the information would be there for me, but hey, Googling is so out of fashion anyway. Plus, it wasn’t very often that I needed to type special characters like that one and therefore I always shunted Windows’ inadequacy in this, yet another, field to the background.
That said, even if I had bothered to find out how to type those characters on Windows, as I later did, I would’ve been in for a rude shock. It turns out, every time you want to invoke one of these infrequently used characters on Windows, you have to summon this Character Palette thingy and either double click on the character there or look up its code (which involves at least four keys for most characters) and punch those keys on the keyboard every time you want to type that particular character.
And, of course, given the sheer number of special characters there are, it’s no surprise that even the best of us could only remember one or two of those cryptic codes and key combos. Phew! Microsoft sure knows how to make things easy to use, huh? Yeah, not really. It’s easier to just Google that character up and copy-paste it from one of the results.
So, here comes the question: How is the Mac any different? Why, thanks for asking, kind sir—the Mac’s approach to this problem is as different from the one Windows employs as the difference between a regular deer and a reindeer. Technically speaking, both are deers, but you’d rather spend time snapping pictures of the latter, wouldn’t you?
Behind the regular, plain-jane front of your Mac keyboard is a special layout of foreign characters that can be invoked by pressing and holding down either the Option key or both the Shift and Option keys together. If you were to do that and then randomly hit a few keys on your keyboard, you’d end up with something like this, “Â¯˝◊˝Î‰Ç◊ÔÂÒˇÓ”. Neat, huh? It’s just as simple as that.
But then the question arises, how do you figure out which key corresponds to which character? To find that out, you’ll need to keep the Keyboard Viewer within your reach. It’s basically a software keyboard (and looks like it does in the screenshot below) that shows you which keys you’re hitting as you traverse across the actual, physical keyboard your Mac is equipped with.
However, it has got a special trick up its sleeve. Whenever you press and hold the Option key or both the Shift and Option keys, the keys on the virtual keyboard change (almost magically) to reflect which special characters will appear if you hit any key on the keyboard now. The key to making one of those characters appear on your document now is just as simple as pressing the right ones.
To make sure that the Keyboard Viewer is always within easy reach, you’ll need to visit ‘System Preferences » International » Input Menu’ and enable Keyboard Viewer there. In case the “Show input menu in menu bar” option at the bottom doesn’t automatically get enabled (it should though), just do that too. You might also want to enable the Character Palette, which comes in handy when the symbol you’re looking for doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut or you want to type in some language other than English (Hindi, for example). Now, hit the tiny US flag in the menu bar and click on Show Keyboard Viewer; then launch TextEdit. And now you can go wild with the special characters.
If you want to type “µTorrent”, just press and hold the Option key and hit ‘M’ to type ‘µ’ and then type the rest. To type accented characters like the ‘é’ in “Exposé”, you need to press and hold the Option key and then hit one of the keys highlighted in orange on the virtual keyboard that correspond to the symbol you want (in this case, ‘E’), followed by the normal character you want the accent to be applied to. So, to make ‘é’ appear, press and hold the Option key and hit ‘E’; then let go of the Option key and hit ‘E’. Trust me, it’s not nearly as confusing as it may sound in writing.
While we’re on the subject of typing special characters, I would like to throw in a bonus tip about using the right characters instead of conforming to universally accepted, but technically wrong, standards. Did you know that there are two types of apostrophes and that the one you use everywhere is actually not supposed to be used anywhere at all? Did you know that the three dots you type when you want to show that something is incomplete is actually just one symbol and that it’s called an ellipsis? Of course, you don’t, but if you want to, Christopher Phin has an excellent article on the “Ten typographic mistakes everyone makes” that is a must-read for you.
Now, my dear friends and readers, feel free to go crazy copyrighting (Option + G, ©), registering (Option + R, ®), and trademarking (Option + 2, ™) every single word you write. And if, every once in a while, you wish to type the Apple logo, just hit ’Shift + Option + K’ and it’ll be there before you know it. Happy typing!