Access Hidden Characters in Mac OS X

July 14, 2011, By Christian Cawley

How do you react when you’re typing a document, inputting data into a spreadsheet or writing code and you suddenly discover that the character that you want to use isn’t available in OS X? Because of the vast number of non-alphanumeric characters than you can use in day to day work or as part of the coding syntax of many different computer languages, the vast majority of symbols are hidden from view on a standard keyboard

While you might be able to use the Insert Symbol function on Microsoft Word: Mac to get the results you need there are other ways to uncover the location of the missing symbols on your computer.

The best option is with the on-screen keyboard tools in Mac OS X, Keyboard Viewer, which will allow you to identify and locate any of the symbols that you’re particularly interested in using.

Access Hidden Characters in Mac OS X

Opening Keyboard Viewer

In Windows, hidden symbols can usually be acquired by holding ALT and typing a four-digit code. With Mac OS X, however, symbols and characters are assigned locations on the keyboard in the usual way, and you can access them with various SHIFT, COMMAND and OPTION/ALT keyboard combinations.

To get started with the keyboard viewing tool, open System Preferences > Language & Text and then find the Input Sources tab; at the top, ensure that Keyboard & Character Viewer option is checked, and also select the Show Input menu in menu bar option.

This step will have added a flag to the menu bar, so click this and you will notice the available input methods as well as options for the keyboard viewer. Select Show Keyboard Viewer for this tool, a virtual keyboard, to appear on-screen. If the virtual keyboard appears too large you can resize it by dragging the corners.

Using Keyboard Viewer in Mac OS X

With this native OS X utility now running, you should be able to start identifying and using the various hidden symbols.

By tapping keys on your physical keyboard you can see that these actions are replicated in the Keyboard Viewer, but you will also notice that by holding one of the modifier buttons other symbols are displayed. You are probably aware of those options available by holding SHIFT (they’re usually printed on the keyboard!) but others are available by combining SHIFT with OPTION/ALT or simply using OPTION/ALT on its own.

For instance, on Macs bought in the UK, the # symbol can be input using OPTION+3, while the © symbol for copyright is available using OPTION+G.

Additionally, this method can also be used for adding characters with accents. By holding OPTION/ALT you will see some keys are highlighted in orange, offering the ability to add the accents. The idea is that you would then combine the accent with an appropriate standard character: for instance, you might press OPTION+E to display an acute accent in your text editor, and then tap E to create é.

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