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Character building: making use of the symbols not on your keyboard

Since our keyboards have to fit on our desks and the keys on them have to be large enough for our big clumsy fingers to cope with, there is always going to be a limit to the number of symbols you can bring onto your screen at the touch of a button.

The vast majority of the time, the 26 letters of the English alphabet, along with a few numbers and punctuation marks, are more than adequate. Now and again, however,  you might need to write a foreign word, denote an unfamiliar currency or refer to Prince during that period when he was known as ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’.

Often, Microsoft Word will help you out; it automatically changes ‘cafe’ to ‘café’ and ‘precis’ to ‘précis’ but what if you want to type the word ‘resumé’? Word won’t pick up on it, because ‘resume’ is a word itself.

Similarly, are you a writer who would type up phrases like ‘two million Euros’ and ’22 degrees centigrade’, simply because you don’t know how to get the obscure characters you really need onto your page?

Some people will Google them to find a site with them on and then copy and paste them into their document, but there’s a more succinct way to go about it. Many experienced writers are completely unaware of the Character Map.

If you’re using a Windows interface, you’ll find this function by going to your Start menu, then Accessories, then System Tools. It allows you to type a shedload of characters that you can’t find on your keyboard with the help of the Alt key and some numerical codes. Either that, or you can copy and paste them straight from the Map itself.

I have Alt+0128 and Alt+0176 embedded in my brain, because they represent the two non-keyboard symbols I seem to use most often – the Euro (€) and degree sign (°) respectively. Alt+0223 (ß) and Alt+0252 (ü) are lingering in there as well from my A-Level German years. Try it yourself; make sure that you have the Num Lock key activated, hold down the Alt button and use the number keys on the right of your keyboard. It’s surprising how often it comes in handy to know these, or at least where to look to find them.

Apple mobile devices make things arguably even more straightforward. When writing on an iPad or iPhone, it’s possible to generate alternative characters just by holding down a certain key on the touchscreen. For instance, keeping your finger on the ‘a’ key will bring up a choice of nine variants of the letter, complete with the accents, umlauts, rings and circumflexes they need to be used correctly.

If you write regularly, it’s worth having a list near your computer of some of the characters you often find yourself using and how to generate them. You need never write the word ‘yen’ again!

Steven Morris

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