The piece I’m writing at the moment needs me to use a few French expressions. Some of the French words have various different accents: acute, grave, circumflex, cedilla, etc. The built-in Help in Pages said to select Edit > Special Characters. But it only has an Emoji & Symbols option. This will allow me to select the appropriate accent on its own, but not with the corresponding letter. I can type an “e” and an acute accent separately, but not with the accent in the proper position, above the “e”.
There’s a point as a computer user when you’ve used one so long that you forget what you’ve learned. My wife was working on her résumé the other day and asked me to proofread it. I noticed she’d used hyphens where a long dash is typically required, and I said she should substitute it.
“How do I type a long dash?” she asked. And I was flummoxed. As a Mac user since about 1985, and someone who worked as a typesetter, the gesture was ingrained in my fingers, but I had to stop and think about the keystrokes. To my memory, Apple has offered the ability to insert an en dash—longer than a hyphen and used to connect a range of numbers—and an em or “long” dash since nearly the dawn of the Mac. (It’s Option-Shift-hyphen, by the way, which I had to mime first in order to tell her.)
Apple combines Option and Option-Shift with many characters to let you type accented or marked letters that occur in non-English languages that use the Latin alphabet, as well as long dashes and other symbols. This used to be a selling point, and now it’s just such background radiation of the operating system that I would wager most Mac users (like Colin) are unaware it exists.
Apple has long hidden this wealth of diacritical marks and other special characters as keyboard extras—if you knew the right keys to press. Some third-party keyboards expose these as reminders; I have a Matias Quiet Pro keyboard, which has all the alternatives printed on keys, but as a long-time touch typist, I never look at the keys, so it’s not that useful.
You can also pull up Keyboard Viewer (the modern equivalent of Key Caps for old timers) by going to the Keyboard system preferences pane, and checking Show Keyboard, Emoji, & Symbol Viewers in Menu Bar. Then you can select Keyboard Viewer from a strange little system menu bar item, which has a Command key in it. Hold down Option, Shift, and Option-Shift to preview what characters result. You can also click keys to put them into the current program at the text-insertion point.
Or just use your physical keyboard directly. Type Option-E in any OS X program, and then type any letter that’s supported with an acute accent appears: á, é, í, ó, and so on (lowercase or upper). A cedilla (the curly bit under a “c” for an “s” sound or similar in some languages) can be produced by typing Option-C (ç) or Shift-Option-C (Ç). Starting a few releases back of OS X, you can also hold down any letter for which alternate versions are available, and, after a couple of seconds, a pop-over appears with the list of characters, each of which has a number underneath; type the number, and that character is inserted.
You can also use the Emoji & Symbols menu, but only once it’s been configured—something that’s non-obvious, of course. From the gear menu in that palette, select Customize List. Scroll down until you see Latin, and check that. Now a Latin item appears in its sidebar at left, and, once selected, you can scroll through all possible characters available for insertion that are in the Latin alphabet section of Unicode, represented here as the UTF-8 encoding. (The encoding is the way in which the characters are represented as underlying byte values, rather than the set of possible characters, which Unicode defines.) The font you’re using also has to have the character in it, which most popularly used default typefaces do, like Georgia or Helvetica.
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