†yping $pecial ©haracters øn †he ∆∆ac |

by Aayush Arya

†yping $pecial ©haracters øn †he ∆∆ac |

by Aayush Arya on October 27, 2008

KeyboardUnlike 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, “¯˝◊˝Î‰Ç◊ÔÂÒˇÓ”. 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.

Keyboard Viewer

Keyboard Viewer (click to enlarge)

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!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }


To be fair to Windows, all you need to do is install the US International Keyboard layout: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/306560. By default they ship with US English layout which doesn’t do accented characters with Alt key.

But yes Character Map is no match for Character Palette.



@Deepak Heard of Unicode ? You don’t need to install the keyboard layout. Unicode character set handles them all.
@Aryayush Ummmm you don’t need to look up the code, Character map comes with search :roll:



@Sathya – Unicode is a data encoding/representation standard – you still need keyboard to type what’ll get stored as Unicode. Saying that you don’t need a keyboard to type accented characters because we’ve got Unicode is like saying you don’t need a keyboard to type English characters because we’ve got ASCII.


Milind Alvares

Tell me someone, how does one type an ellipsis (…) (Option+;) on a Windows PC?



@Milind Alt+0133


Milind Alvares

^^ Exactly! :D


Aayush Arya

By the time a Windows user types one ellipsis, a Mac user will have typed 25 of them. And a Mac user is very unlikely to forget the shortcut for it once he knows it. And I’ll probably have forgotten the code for the Windows way by the time I’ve switched to another tab.

That, my dear friend, is the difference.



How many time do you type ellipses really? Even in your post about accented/special characters you’ve typed it 0 times. That said, heard of Autohotkey? Takes a minute for me to map Alt+; (or for that matter any key combo) to type …

It’ll probably be said that 3rd party products are not allowed. To which I’ll say that I can pick a special character that is easy to type on Windows and impossible on Mac without 3rd party add-ons. Look at any character from Kannada or Telugu or Malayalam or Bengali

For other characters – like the accented characters from European languages, there is the US International keyboard layout – which comes with Windows and takes 2 mins to enable – and works with the Alt key. So you press Alt+e for é even there.

Macs are better than Windows in a lot of respects (as I said in my comment earlier Character Palette on Mac is a much better solution than Character Map on Windows) – but to single out ellipsis is a bit weak.


Aayush Arya

As an author who refuses to make do with three period symbols instead of a proper ellipsis and the straight quote signs instead of the proper curved ones, I can assure you that I need those special characters on a daily basis. The article above didn’t require an ellipsis but in ones that do, the Mac shortcut is much better than the Windows one.

As for mapping those shortcuts manually to other key combinations using third party software, well, how many symbols can you do that for, really? Is it at all practical? And how is the Mac way, which does not require you to do that, not better?

As for characters of other languages, (a) Except for a very few individuals, they’re not as important as symbols of the English language; and (b) They’re just as easy to type on a Mac as they are on Windows. All the characters of Gujrati, Gurmukhi, Tamil, Devanagari, Tibetan, Oriya, Kannada, Bengali, Malayalam, Limbu, Sinhala, Telugu, Kharoshthi, Syloti Nagri, and Phags-pa are right there in the Character Palette.



Serious authors use what is called a word processor. Any word processor worth its grain has something called ‘auto replace’ which changes … to … on the fly. Authors also don’t type the correct closing quotes these days, because word processors are smart enough to do it based on the context. This sounds more practical to me than having to type it by hand.

You only need to do the mapping for ellipsis – that too if you type it often and find Alt+0133 uncomfortable. That’s because the US International keyboard on Windows, follows almost the same scheme for accented characters as the keyboard on Mac.

Macs don’t even come with fonts for Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu – so character palette doesn’t help. Forget typing for a minute, if I were to give someone text in Kannada or Bengali, they wouldn’t even be able to read it on a Mac without installing a 3rd party font. Visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/bengali/ for example or try a search for ‘Bengali Letter A’ – you’ll get a blank in character palette – ditto for the other 3 languages.


Aayush Arya

I had no idea about Bengali not being there. It was listed in the Character Palette so I figured it was there. That’s a definite drawback, although I’m not sure whether it’s there in Windows by default or not. Maybe it is, I wouldn’t know.

But the typing in the word processor thing is a pretty weak counter-argument. I type on a hundred different places throughout the day on my Mac and use a word processor for neither of them. Even when I write the Macworld articles, I use TextEdit. I hate the idea of having my mistakes automatically corrected by software. Once you get used to typing in a word processor, it’s very difficult to type capital ‘I’s and use the proper quote symbols, etc. when a word processor isn’t there to assist you.

And anyway, I just think the basis of your argument itself is not strong at all. On a Mac, you get a keyboard that visually shows the layout of all the special characters and which keys they correspond to. No symbol requires more than three keystrokes. On Windows, you need to open the Character Map and find out the code for each character. And then you need to press five keys (and numbers, no less) for any of the characters to appear.

There’s absolutely no way you are convincing me that Windows matches up to the Mac OS X way in this department. That said, if I haven’t been able to convince you either, let us just agree to disagree. :)


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