A Guide to Special Characters on Your Mac

Your Mac's keyboard likely comes equipped with keys for all your most commonly-typed characters, such as your local alphabet, numbers and a range of common punctuation and basic symbols. OS X has, however, the power to input well in excess of the characters residing on those eighty, or so, individual keys through a handy system of virtual input and substitution.
In this tutorial, I will show you exactly how easy it is to access special characters in OS X.

Why? Perché? ¿Por qué?

Before I start looking at how to input and use special characters, you may be wondering why you'd ever need to use them. Your keyboard, after all, is tailored to the characters of your language and the symbols are those most commonly used in your geographic location.
MacBook Air US Keyboard Layout
A MacBook comes equipped with keys for the most commonly used characters in your language.
The time may come when you do need to quote a bit of French and let an E carry an acute accent, a notable absence on your keyboard. Alternatively, you might find yourself needing the use the symbol for the Japanese Yen but your British-localised keyboard doesn't accommodate that particular currency symbol.

Inserting Characters With Accent Marks

You can enter a number of accents and language-based special characters by simply holding down the key relevant to the character that you wish to carry an accent. A small menu will appear about the letter indicating which number key to press to get one of the listed special characters.
This feature, introduced in OS X Lion, streamlines the process of adding accents to characters in your document, without the need to manually insert them through a maze of menus and toolbars.
Long Press Special Character Entry
Long-pressing the E key provides access to a range of accented alternatives.
For example, to add an acute accent to the letter e (thus creating the é character), simply hold down the E key on your keyboard, followed by pressing the 2 key to insert the respective character instead.
Alternatively, you can click the character you want or cycle through the options with the arrow keys and use the Return key to select one.

Inserting Other Special Characters

Where a special character isn't available through the long-press method, described above, OS X provides the Keyboard and Character Viewers to allow you select and insert individual special characters.
The easiest way of accessing either of these two viewers is by enabling the Menu bar shortcut. To do this, click on the Apple menu in the menu bar, then navigate to System Preferences > Language & Text > Input Sources and select the Keyboard & Character Viewer tickbox.
Keyboard & Character Viewer
The Keyboard and Character Viewers are easily accessed from the menu bar when enabled.
Now that the Keyboard & Character Viewer menu is visible on your menu bar, you can select it and click on either Show Character Viewer or Show Keyboard Viewer to view the relevant viewer.

The Character Viewer

When the Character Viewer is shown, inserting a character is as easy as double-clicking it in the window. By default, the Character Viewer provides access to a library of special character, including Latin-based letters, Emojis, bullets, maths symbols and additional punctuation.
Character Viewer
The Character Viewer provides access to the full catalogue of special characters, snowmen included.
You can quickly access your recently used characters in the Recently Used tab or add any character to the Favorites tab by single-clicking it and selecting Add to Favorites.
Extending the Character Viewer
The Character Viewer can be easily extended to provide access to even more special characters.
You can further extend the available characters by selecting the gear button and clicking on Customize List.... Then, tick the tickbox next to any of the listed categories of symbols or alphabetic scripts to add them to your Character Viewer. The additional characters can be inserted into your text through the same process as any of the default sets.

The Keyboard Viewer

The Keyboard Viewer allows you to use a virtual keyboard instead of the physical one attached to your Mac to input characters in another language as if you were using a native keyboard layout. When the Keyboard Viewer is shown, you can click on any of the virtual keys to insert that particular character in the same way as if you had typed it with a physical key. For reference, this entire sentence was composed solely with the virtual keys, corrections included.
Keyboard Viewer
The Keyboard Viewer offers a virtual alternative to the physicality at your fingertips.
You can use the Keyboard Viewer in your Mac's native language, but you'll need to enable other ones before they can be used for virtual input. To add a language, open System Preferences, then click Language & Text and then click Input Sources. Here, you can select the checkbox next to any language to add it as an available input source.
Keyboard Viewer Input Sources
The Keyboard Viewer's features can be used in a variety of languages supported in OS X.
When you want to use a different language, select the same Keyboard & Character Viewer item in the menu bar -- although, when more than one language is enabled, the icon will now show the flag or symbol of the current language in use -- and click on the desired language. The Keyboard Viewer will then change layout to represent the keys of the desired language and allow you to insert native characters. To change back to your regular language, once again click on the Keyboard & Character Viewer menu bar item and select the desired input language to switch to.

Inserting Chinese Characters with Trackpad Handwriting

For Simplified or Traditional Chinese characters, another input method is available: trackpad handwriting. Trackpad Handwriting allows you to draw out a Chinese character using the multi-touch trackpad on your MacBook or a Magic Trackpad.
To get started with Trackpad Handwriting, you first need to enable a supported form of Simplified or Traditional Chinese by opening System Preferences > Language & Text > Input Sources and selecting the relevant Trackpad Handwriting tickbox for your desired form of Chinese.
Trackpad Handwriting
Trackpad Highlighting turns your Mac's multi-touch trackpad into a drawing pad for Chinese characters.
To begin Trackpad Handwriting, you don't need to switch languages in the menu bar. Instead, simply press Control-Shift-Space and Trackpad Handwriting will appear. The same keyboard shortcut is used to close Trackpad Handwriting too. Then, simply treat your trackpad like any other multitouch display and draw out the character you want to insert. When recognised, OS X will show options down the right side which you can tap on your trackpad to insert. You can tap in the top-left of your trackpad to remove your drawings if needed.
If Trackpad Handwriting doesn't recognise your input on the trackpad, swiping down with two fingers and then deleting the input should solve the issue.

Symbol and Text Substitution

If you find yourself using a particular special character often, OS X also has symbol and text substitution that can automatically replace a particular string of input with your desired symbol. By default, OS X automatically does this in a handful of cases, such as changing (c) into the © symbol, but you can add your own custom rules too.
To create, edit or delete a substitution, open System Preferences > Language & Text > Text. To create a new substitution, click the + button and then double-click on each of the two empty columns in the new, blank row and type/paste your before and after text.
Creating a New Substitution
Creating a new substitution is a surprisingly straightforward process.
To edit any of the default or custom substitutions, simply double-click on what you want to change and replace it with the desired characters. You can toggle the substituion using the respective tickbox or select it and click the - button to remove it permanently.


In this tutorial, I have shown you how to access accents and special characters on your Mac. How to access and use other special characters, symbols and emojis. I have shown you how to enable different languages, in System Preferences, and how to write with Chinese characters.
You have probably experienced at least one case of needing to use a special character, by now. Having a firm grasp on how it all works means the next time need not impact the speed of your workflow. No more copy-pasting from Google required!


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