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Dr. Jon Aske

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Typing accented letters and other special characters on a PC (or Mac)

Contrary to what some people think, you can write non English characters of all types in any versions of the Windows operating system without using any special type of software. You just have to learn how to enter these characters since this is not obvious if your computer is configured to be used primarily with English only. But it is really not that hard and you should learn how to do it if you type in Spanish, French or another language.


Method 1: Microsoft Word word processor

If you only want to type non-standard characters, such as accented letters, inside Microsoft Word, and only occasionally, the best solution is to use Word's symbol utility. Actually, you can type anything in Word this way and then copy and paste it to another program, such as your email program.

You can insert non-English characters into a Word document by going to Insert in the toolbar and selecting Symbol. Then select and insert the appropriate accented letter or other symbol.

You do not have to go through this lengthy process, however. Preset shortcuts exist for many of these symbols, and you can create them for those that are not preset.

Thus to type an accented letter, press the Control key down, and while it's down press the accent mark key (',`,:, ^, or ,) (found, respectively, a) next to the enter key; b) top left, under tilde ~; c) number 6 key; d) comma for c cedille in French), followed by the letter to be modified, as a separate keystroke. Thus, e.g.

Control-' + a = á
Control-` + e = è
Control-~ + n = ñ (to type the ~ you will need to press Shift key too)
Control-Alt-? = ¿
Control-Alt-! = ¡

(You can also chose quicker ways of inserting these "symbols" by using macro shortcuts in Word. Go to Insert in the Toolbar and select Symbol. Choose the symbol you want and then click on Shortcut key....)

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Method 2: Windows international keyboard mapping

[This page does not cover all the steps for setting up the international keyboard mapping for all the versions of Windows. Go to this page for more information.]

[This is the best method to use on your own computer when you are going to be using special characters on a regular basis, especially on email. Do not let the apparent complication make you give up.]

In Windows 95/98/XP, if you use "foreign symbols" in different programs besides your word processor (such as in your email program, in file names, etc.), and you use them all the time, and this is your own computer, you should use a special character mapping for your keyboard. This will allow you to type accented letters and other symbols everywhere, in every single program you use, including your email program (Web-based or otherwise). This is how the computers at the Language Lab are configured, so that you can enter special characters by following some simple steps.

In Windows 95/98, to change the keyboard type, go to the Start button, select Settings, Control Panel, then double-click on the Keyboard icon. Under installed keyboard language, make sure you have English (United States). If not, add it by clicking on the Add button. Now click on the Properties button to select a keyboard layout. Select United States-International.

In Windows XP, to change the keyboard type,

  1. go to the Start button,
  2. select Control Panel
  3. double-click on the Regional and Language Options icon
  4. In the Languages tab, click on Details (for text services and input languages).
  5. Under Default Input Language you should probably have English (United States) - US, and under Installed Services you probably have just a keyboard called US. Now what you need to do is add a second keyboard:
  6. Click Add > For Input Language, select English (United States); for Keyboard layout/IME select United States International.
  7. Click OK
  8. Back at the Settings tab of Text Services and Input Languages, now you have two choices for Default Input Language, if you want the old way (English (United States) - US) to be the default, select it; if you want the new way (English (United States) - United STates-International) to be the default, select it
  9. Click OK

Now a new icon will show up in your taskbar by the clock from which you can choose among the different keyboard layouts available. Don't forget to select United States International before typing foreign characters.

After doing this, you type special characters by typing a combination of 'accent key' and main key. For example, ', a (first tilde then a, in separate strokes), you will get an á, anywhere in windows. Same for `, a, which will give you à. The letter ñ is ~, n. Upside down question mark (¿) will be Control-Alt-/ and upside down ! (¡) is Control-Alt-1.

(The only drawback of this method is that when you actually want to type 'a and not á, you have to type ', followed by a space (to actually type the '), followed by an a. But, that is why Windows XP will put an icon next to the tool bar (near the clock on the bottom right corner of the desktop) which looks like a keyboard which allows you to switch easily between the UnitedStates-International keyboard and the English-United States keyboard.)

To type an accented letter (e.g. , , , ), simply press the 'accent key' (', `, ", or ~, respectively) and then the basic letter in question (a)

Apostrophe (') + letter (a,e,i,o,u, c) accented letter (,,,,, )
Slant apostrophe (`) + letter (a,e,i,o,u) accented letter (à,è,ì,ò,ù)
Quote marks (") + letter (a,e,i,o,u) accented letter (ä,ë,ï,ö,ü)
Circumflex (^) + letter (a,e,i,o,u) accented letter (â,ê,î,ô,û)
~ + n ñ
Ctrl-Alt-/ ¿
Ctrl-Alt-1 ¡

With the international layout, by using the right ALT key (AltGr in the pictures below) to the right of the space bar (not the one to the left) you can type many of the accented letters and other special keys used in European languages other than English, e.g.

Right-Alt-key + letter (a,e,i,o,u) accented letter (á,é,í,ó,ú)
Right-Alt-key + n
Right-Alt-key + /
Right-Alt-key + 1
Right-Alt-key + , (comma)
... ...

For all the possible characters you can type using the right alt key see the following graphics:

Normal keyboard keys:
keyboard normal

Characters obtaining when pressing AltGr (the right Alt key):
keyboard with altchar

Characters obtaining when pressing AltGr and Shift keys:
keyboard with altchar and shift

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Method 3: Alt-keys

In a jiffy, and when you're not at your computer or when you're not in word, you can always use the alt number key for the symbol (while keeping the Alt key pressed, type the following number on the key pad (not on the number keys above the letters):

á  Alt-160     à  Alt-133     â  Alt-131
ä  Alt-132     é  Alt-130     è  Alt-138
ê  Alt-136     ë  Alt-137     í  Alt-161
ì  Alt-141     î  Alt-140     ï  Alt-139
ó  Alt-162     ò  Alt-149     ô  Alt-147
ö  Alt-148     ú  Alt-163     ù  Alt-151
û  Alt-150     ü  Alt-129     ç  Alt-135
Ç  Alt-128     É  Alt-144     «  Alt-174
»  Alt-175     ñ  Alt-164     Ñ  Alt-165
¿  Alt-168     ¡  Alt-173

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Method 4: Windows' Character Map Utility

A more time-consuming method involves the use of the small utility called Character Map which comes with all versions of Windows and copy the character you want and then paste it into the document you are in. To start Character Map if you don't, go to Start, then Programs, then Accessories. It should be there. Or go to Start, Run, and type c:\windows\charmap.exe.

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Special Characters for Macs

To type the following characters: (1) set the language input to U.S., (2)hold down the Option key and press the first letter, (3) release both keys, and (4) type the second letter.

To get the capitalized special characters, hold down the Shift key when you type the second letter. To find out more characters, there are two ways: (1) search and insert special characters in a word processor, e.g., using the Symbol command under the Insert menu in Microsoft Word; (2) do a Find search for Key Caps on your computer and double click the keyboard icon to start it up.

Hold down Shift or Option keys to see different diacritics and special characters on the keyboard pictured! Some Western languages may require their keyboard layouts instead of U.S., which is similar to two-byte characters like Chinese, Japanese, or Russian.

option u + a = ä
option u + e = ë
option u + o = ö
option u + u = ü
option e + a = á
option e + e = é
option e + i = í
option e + o = ó
option e + u = ú
option ` + a = à
option ` + e = è
option ` + i = ì
option ` + o = ò
option ` + u = ù
option + s = ß
option + c = ç
option n + n = ñ
option i + a = â
option i + e = ê
option i + o = ô
option ! = ¡
option ? = ¿

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Related links

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Salem State College - Foreign Languages Department
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Last updated: March 7, 2004