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Order à la carte at the Résumé Café
2005, Q4 (March 13, 2008)
By Jay Gross

Editor’s note: This article is reprinted from the South Carolina Midlands chapter newsletter, Verbatim, with permission from the author.

We all need a funny character occasionally, and not just for comic relief. For example, check the ubiquitous small print for a circled "C" beside the copyright threat. There's a simple, elegant way to get that "funny" character without graphics editing, and without resorting to parentheses. Besides, there are occasions when you can't do without the English language's many imported words and phrases. Those are the ones brought over from French, Spanish, German, wherever, complete with the accents that grace their native lexical habitats. Words like el niño, François, tête à tête, naïve, Gœthe, crêpes Suzettes, and Ægis. Okay, maybe those won't occur much in "Procedures for preventing employees from inhaling valuable carbon monoxide during a fire."

Questions, questions

The point is, when you need an e-acute, as in café, your standard-issue keyboard comes up lacking. We all know where the <ANY> key is, but where's ¼, ½, and ÷?. How do you get ¾�, and what key yields a §, a pound (£) as in Queen E's non-Eurocash, or a Greek mu (μ), which is geekspeak for "micron"? Technical specifications documents often bear such as those sprinkled throughout, like pepper on blackened fish. What to do? And how? Or, as they might say in Spanish with upraised eyebrows and an upside down question mark: ¿Cómo?

The answer is right in front of you. But first a word about our friend the alphabet. In languages besides English, a few or a plethora of those pesky little decorations, jots, and tittles indicate pronunciation, inflection, emphasis, or something otherwise useful (or not) about a word. Proper English technical language has little need of ãccéntéd characters — those peculiar non-vanilla alphabets with minuscule dots, squiggles, and hashmarks that adorn the letters like crowns and stalagmites.

Right away, when one of them peeks at you from a gloriously gray field of type, you know something foreign is afoot. Perhaps we don't bother with the marks to spare school children the strain of learning not just the presence but the shape and direction of the accents.

The answer.

Character Codes
So ¿Cómo? Simple. The solution's even Micrøsøft compatible. The secret is an <ALT> key — either one of them adjacent to the spacebar on most anybody's keyboard. To get the Spanish begin-interrogatory mark (¿), hold down <ALT> while you type the numbers 0191. When you let the <ALT> key up, the character will appear. This will work in almost all programs, including within the Windows filesystems. You can name a file <¿Whàt’š_Thîs_StÜff_¥’áll?>, but why oh why would you want to? (And please oh please don't do it!, signed, your IT tech guru.)

The Windows <ALT> key can supply some typographic decorations, plus some absolute necessities. Take registered trademarks. That pesky little superscripted "R" in a circle is a must if your legal department keeps their fever down. The circled "C" in copyright notices is another de rigeur item. Do you laboriously format a superscripted "T" and "M" where a simple ™ is required? Did your BigBoss® copyright your dissertation on lunchmeat with "-+(c)2005 Tasteless Treats, Inc.+-"? Pass your appreciative fingers over a handy <ALT> key and press 0169 for the copyright symbol ©, 0174 for the circled R, ®, and while you're there, try this: 0153 for ™. That's the approved special character for the trademark symbol. Don't look for servicemark. It's not there, so revert to superscripting for that one. In some fonts, including this one, the ®symbol isn't superscripted — have to add that attribute if you want it.

The gotchas.

It won't work with all printers. Does anything? Ever? However, if the fonts you use on the computer are normally downloaded to the printer, what you see on the screen will probably show up on paper. In all cases, it's best to test the extra characters, fonts, and printers long before the deadline.

Alas, it won't work with all typefaces, either. It's hit or miss and a lot of the latter. However, the most common workhorse typefaces, as well as most of the expensive "designer" ones (other than display faces) contain most of the accented characters. OpenType fonts, which cost more than TrueType and Type 1 fonts, should contain the whole set, since they're intended to support many languages comprising a variety of glyphs and conventions beyond mere ASCII (read: glorified typewriter) character sets.

Truetype versions of Times New Roman, boring ol' Arial or Helvetica, and beautiful downtown Courier New, contain almost all of the accented characters--a plentiful potload of picky people's alphabets to make your technical documents look typographically handsome.
Spelling checkers can't/don't deal with accented characters, and some will whine about them as "misspelled." Add them to your user dictionary, and go from there. Unfortunately, you'll end up with two acceptable versions of the word in the dictionary, and the checker won't complain if there's no accent. So much for consistency.


The pointed yawning from the Microsoft Word users' corner is coming in loud and crack-rock clear. Word (WordPerfect and most anybody else's wordprocessor) offers a software solution. You go Biblical (seek and ye shall find) in the pull down menus for Insert/Symbol (in WordPerfect), and then pick what you want. Whammo, it shows up at the cursor's left. No <ALT> needed. The resulting characters export fine to PDF, and even print reliably--on your desk. They might not work anyplace else.

Newer versions of Word and WordPerfect do this automatically. Type "cafe" and the program changes it to "café" while you watch--or while you type on and on, whichever. Getting the word to appear without the accent requires several extra keystrokes. Ah, but behind your back Word (and WordPerfect) substitutes the font in many cases, so if you change the typeface for a block of characters that includes a funny one, the symbol could be either gone or grotesque, or lost in... wordspace. The <ALT> -accessed characters, on the other hand, might keep their definitions and looks as long as the font you pick also contains the character. Ask yourself which is quicker. With <ALT> characters, if you need something frequently, like degrees Celsius in scientific verbiage ("-+STP ±0.2° C.+-"), you can simply memorize the character's numeric code, at least till the project's finished.

A couple more words to the wizened. Regardless of how you get them into the text, documents containing these "funny" characters will not move reliably from Windows to Macintosh. In fact, not much of this applies to Mac users, anyway. To move documents containing special characters and accented characters across operating systems, try PDF (portable — yeah, right — document format) with embedded fonts. Even simple apostrophes and quotation marks get confused when moved from Mac to Windows.

<ALT>ernate Solutions

This approach is fine for occasional use by purists intent on orthographic precision. There are other ways.

If you have constant need for accented characters — say, if you're preparing documentation in multiple languages — you can invest in an accent-enabled keyboard. That's what you'd get if you bought a computer in a country whose native language is accent-riddled. France, for example. The native French Macintosh PowerBook G4 keyboard pictured here pushes the numbers to <SHIFT>ed status and populates the top row of keys with accented vowels and language-specific characters. Notice it's an AZERTY keyboard, too. Meta keys enable the usual punctuation, parentheses, and such.

Problem MacSolved

The Big Tasty for dealing with accented characters (not so much fractions) is the Macintosh. The standard keyboard mapping enables <ALT> -plus accent-specifier plus target to get accented vowels, c-cedilla, n-tilde, etc. For example, to get the e-aigu in café, hold down <ALT> and press "e" to indicate you want an aigu accent. Then hit "e" again to specify which character to apply it to. After you get the hang of it, it's apple-pie easy. What isn't?

With the globalization of the marketplace, software makers have come to grips with the fact that documents often require more than twenty-six letters. Adobe's InDesign, for example, offers a context menu for inserting publishers' quotes, en dashes, and accented characters into documents. The accented characters are available from a click-what-you-want-inserted chart. It's still quicker to type the (memorized) <ALT> codes, however. Either way, InDesign considerately does not, uninvited, substitute the fonts.

The accompanying chart gives the numeric codes for a variety of typographic necessities and funny character assignations. What you see is <ALT> you get.

Jay Gross is a freelance writer, editor, and commercial photographer in downtown Columbia, SC. He can be reached at jg at fotoartista dot com. End of article.

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