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Key learnings for typists

John Murray

The ultimate aim of anyone who regularly word processes is to get to know where all the keys are without looking at the keyboard, but is there any particular reason why we use the layout that we do? Why not just have keys in alphabetical order?

The keyboard layout with which  most of us are familiar is known as QWERTY, for obvious reasons; these are the first six letters on the top row. The design is well over a century old and was the work of American newspaper editor Christopher Latham Sholes.

The idea behind it, in short, is to keep the commonly used keys within easy reach for the fingers resting on the ‘home keys’ (A, S, D, F, J, K, L and 😉 and place the less common likes of Q, Z and X further away. It was also optimised to avoid the jamming of typewriter keys.

QWERTY is designed with the English language in mind, meaning that it is not always well suited across the world. In German-speaking and former Yugoslav countries, the QWERTZ interface is more common. This is very similar to QWERTY, with the main difference being that the Y and Z swap places. Z is a commonly used letter in German, whereas Y is only really used for words borrowed from English, so it makes sense for Z to be in the more prominent position. German QWERTZ keyboards also make room for the characters Ä, Ö and Ü.

Some other countries prefer the AZERTY layout, where the A and Z swap positions with the Q and W respectively. This lends itself well to typing in French, in which Q and Z are more common.

A more radical alternative to all of these is the Dvorak keyboard. Named after its American inventor, this places all the vowels on the left hand side of the middle row and, if you were looking to give it an acronym based on its first few letters, this would be ‘PYFGCRL’.

Dr August Dvorak argued that letters should ideally be typed with alternating hands, and that the most commonly used letters should be in the middle row. There’s a lot of sense in what he says, but generations of people have grown up with QWERTY and it seems unlikely that the layout will ever change.

Can you imagine what it would be like if all the keys on your keyboard were moved about overnight and you had to get used to a brand new order? At least we know where we are with QWERTY!

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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