Énrìçhîñg Your Märks

Those of you who have visited my Spanish-language writing I do not shy away from the diacritical marks that make Spanish function.  Learning how to use them correctly was a major part of coming to grips with my heritage as much as I did in Miami, given how much more effective a communicator I am in writing than in speech.  Leaving aside autistic sentimentality, leaving out diacritical marks in Spanish famously turns ordinary sentences into body-horror gibberish or casual blasphemy, so it’s important for would-be Hispanophone writer to know how to use them.

Mi papá tiene 47 años. = My dad is 47 years old. Mi papa tiene 47 anos. = My potato has 47 assholes. Mi Papa tiene 47 anos. = My Pope has 47 assholes.

But knowing the rules for which words have marks on them and which words don’t isn’t sufficient, particularly in languages that have more involved diacritical mark systems than Spanish does.  It’s easy enough to put extra pencil lead on a sheet of paper, but accessing diacritical marks in typing can be a hassle.  US keyboards generally do not display diacritical marks as options, so it’s common for speakers of languages that would otherwise use these marks to just…not, even if it makes meaning tricky to parse or costs some of the language’s richness.  This isn’t necessary, though.  There are many tools for precise orthography in non-English languages, and I’ve used a bunch of them.

Apologies in advance, Mac users.  Chances are none of this applies to you, but similar tricks might.

The first tool I used to employ diacritical marks was ANSI character codes.  With Num Lock on and a numeric keypad, many characters are coded as a sequence of four numbers.  By holding ALT and typing the four numbers in sequence, one could produce the desired character.  The first one I found was ALT+0220, which produces (Ü).  Unlike the other methods presented here, this one works across Windows applications, including in Notepad, browsers, and messengers.  This method is likely of little use on many modern machines, however, as Num Lock keys and numeric keypads are rarer and rarer and it most emphatically does not work without them.  Even if it was, however, four-digit codes are long enough that it can be difficult to memorize as many of them as would be needed to cover the diacritic or otherwise unique characters found in Spanish (15-17*), Portuguese (24), French (32-34*), or Polish (16), and it’s not practical to constantly consult a large table to remember which code is (î) and which is (Ñ).  *Asterisk because not all forms of written Spanish or French use «»-style quotation marks.  Options to change already-found characters from lowercase to uppercase or vice versa put a big dent in the number of codes one needs to memorize, but not enough.  For those who prefer this kind of method,  Unicode provides an alternate scheme that works on non-Num-Lock keyboards.

The next tool at my disposal is the system Character Map.  This program is found in the System Tools area of most versions of Windows and can usually be accessed by typing “charmap” in the Run window.  It’s a small, stand-alone program, so it can be copied and kept elsewhere if helpful.  This program shows the diversity of characters included in a font and enables them to be copied individually or in groups and pasted into other text.  It used to be routine for me to copy the sequence (áéíóúüñ¿¡) and paste it wherever I needed one or more of those characters, deleting the excess and adjusting case after the fact.  Character Map, and the “Insert Symbol” option that duplicates its functionality in recent versions of Microsoft Office, are probably the most obvious way to include diacritically-marked characters, ligatures, runic letters not used in English, Greek letters, and similar characters in a Latin-alphabet text with an English keyboard.

Of course, not all keyboards are English.  My home laptop has a Canadian Multilingual keyboard, and switching between its settings adds keys that provide rapid access to French accented characters.  Software modifications can enable similar access on a US keyboard, without the benefit of the repurposed keys having their new functions printed on them, as well as provide layouts for other languages, including some as divergent from written English as Japanese.

A more efficient way to access non-English characters is to switch the spell-checking language one is using from English to the language in question.  Where that is possible, the spelling suggestions for erroneous words will include diacritical versions, and can be accessed with an instantaneous click.  Relying on this method can lead to entertaining mistakes, because a diacritical mark is sometimes the difference between one word and an entirely different word or verb conjugation that would therefore not be flagged as a spelling error.  So it requires awareness.  The trick I use to get around this is to double the offending letter before moving on.  So, when I’m trying to type “año,” Spanish for “year,” and I don’t want to accidentally leave behind “ano,” Spanish for “anus,” I might type “anno,” which is nonsense in Spanish, and receive both words as spell-check suggestions.  Typing with a Spanish dictionary in Microsoft Word also causes a stand-alone question mark to instantly morph into the inverted mark used to begin a question in Spanish and, depending on the version of Spanish used, convert “”-style quotation marks to «».

Anyone who has ever typed anything knows that relying on the automated spell-checker to resolve one’s issues is a recipe for hilarious disaster, though, so there is a better, more human way.

In Microsoft Office applications, there are a whole suite of keyboard shortcuts that provide access to diacritical marks.  These shortcuts nearly all require pressing two keys simultaneously, letting go, and then pressing the letter to be marked.  Depending on your keyboard layout, the needed character might only be accessible if you press the SHIFT key as well, so you may need to three keys and then the letter to be marked.  This needs to be done individually for each character, as these commands cannot be held, like using SHIFT for capital letters, nor can they be toggled, like CTRL+I for italic text.  These commands affect and produce both capital and lowercase letters.

Diacritical Mark Example Hold Letters Affected
Acute é CTRL + apostrophe a, e, i, o, u, y
Circumflex ê CTRL + [SHIFT +] caret a, e, i, o, u
Dieresis/Umlaut ë CTRL + [SHIFT +] colon a, e, i, o, u, y
Grave* È CTRL + ` a, e, i, o, u
Cedilla/Cedilha ç CTRL + comma c
Tilde* ñ CTRL + [SHIFT +] tilde a, n, o
Special Letter Example Hold Letter Required
Ligatures Æ, œ, ß CTRL + [SHIFT +] & A, O, S
Eth Ð, ð CTRL + apostrophe D
Ø Ø, ø CTRL + / O
Å Å , å CTRL + [SHIFT +] @ A
Inverted Punctuation Example Hold Character Required
¿ ¿ CTRL + ALT + [SHIFT +] ? None
¡ ¡ CTRL + ALT + [SHIFT +] ! None
*The key required for these two marks is usually on the same row as the number keys, to the left of 1.  Normally, (`) is its function, but it produces (~) with SHIFT held.


Because of the limited number of letters affected by these shortcuts and the number of diacritical marks not represented, this method is reliable only for Western European languages, including French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish.  The kreska, kreska ukośna, kropka, and ogonek marks used in Polish, Lithuanian, etc cannot be accessed in this way, nor can the rich array of diacritical marks used in Vietnamese.  Using a similar method for these languages typically requires using similar codes on an alternative, language-specific keyboard layout, or using a keyboard designed for these languages.

Having access to the special characters used in Western European languages has enriched my typing experience, and not just because I sometimes write essays in Spanish.  This has also helped me respect my Québécois and Franco-Ontarian colleagues’ heritage more by allowing me to easily put the correct marks on Éric, Benoît, and François, and started me on the path to somewhat understanding written French.

For anyone who regularly makes use of diacritical marks not commonly found in English, any of these methods of accessing them might come in handy.

Énrìçhîñg Your Märks

2 thoughts on “Énrìçhîñg Your Märks

  1. 1

    One of the few advantages to typing on an iPhone is that diacritics and alternate letters (like æ and ß) are accessible by pressing and holding on a letter. Sometimes I’ll type something up online, then go to it on phone just for ease of diacritic addition.

  2. 2

    It seems to me that the best option for someone writing a lot in a language with diacritics or alternate letters (ie. someone for whom the necessary time investment would be worth it) would be to switch to an alternate keyboard layout when writing in that language.

    For example, I can switch between Danish and US keyboard layouts, so that the keys for ; ‘ ] on the US layout become the Danish letters æ ø å. I realize that in more complicated scenarios, the effort involved in learning a new layout (especially when the keys are labelled “wrong”) can be significant, but I think it’s at least worth considering if you write a lot.

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