Easily type accented characters

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Long-time Mac users know that you can type diacritical characters—for example, â, é, ì, ü, and ñ—by first typing the diacritical (which usually requires the use of the Option key) and then typing the letter. For example, to get ä, you type Option-u and then type a.

If you don’t want to remember the sometimes-obscure key combination required for each diacritical, you can use Mac OS X’s Keyboard Viewer to figure out which combination does what, but it’s a bit of a hassle to have to show and hide Keyboard Viewer each time you want a special character. Another option is PopChar, a third-party utility that provides a drop-down menu for accessing any special character you could ever want to type, but PopChar is probably overkill for many users.

An easier solution—and one that will look familiar to Windows users who use the US International keyboard layout—is built right into Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6). Launch System Preferences, open the Language & Text pane, and then click the Input Sources tab. In the list of input methods on the left, scroll down and enable U.S. International - PC. Then switch to this input method. (The easiest way to do so is to enable, in the same Input Sources tab, the option to Show Input Menu In Menu Bar, and then choose from that menu the U.S. International - PC layout.)

Now creating diacritical characters is as simple as typing a standard punctuation character and then the desired letter:

  • ´ = ' (apostrophe) and then a letter; for example, 'e gives you é
  • ` = ` (grave accent, or tick mark) and then a letter; for example `o gives you ò
  • ¨ = " (quotation mark) and then a letter; for example, "u gives you ü
  • ˆ = ^ (caret) and then a letter; for example, ^a gives you â
  • ˜ = ~ (tilde) and then a letter; for example, ~n gives you ñ

What do you do if you need to type, say, an apostrophe followed by a vowel, as in “A better idea…? Just immediately follow the punctuation character with a space; for example, '[space]. The space disables that particular automatic replacement—the space character won’t even appear—and you can then type any character you want.

(Note that if you’re running Mac OS X 10.5 [Leopard] or 10.4 [Tiger], you can download Rainer Brockerhoff’s USInternational keyboard layout to get similar functionality. Just copy the downloaded file into /Library/Keyboards and then log out and back in. Rainer also has older versions of the keyboard layout for OS X 10.1, 10.2, and 10.3.)

One caveat: Depending on which keyboard you have connected to your Mac, using the U.S. International - PC keyboard layout could change the location of some keys. I’ve been using it with several standard U.S. keyboards, from both Apple and third-party vendors, and haven’t encountered any issues, but that won’t be the case for every keyboard.

(Thanks to Mac OS X Hints readers pietervw and roo.bookaroo for this hint.)

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