Superimposing Characters

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Word users often want to combine two existing font characters to create a third one. Word provides a way to do this, but the first step should be to ascertain whether it is really necessary.

Alternatives to superimposing characters

Look for an existing character

Many users don’t look beyond the keyboard in thinking about font characters. If they want, say, ê, they look at the keyboard, see e and ^ and think how they could combine them. Or they may want to insert a “long vowel,” a character with a macron over it, such as ō, and try to figure out how to combine a hyphen with the vowel.

This is quite unnecessary! Virtually every font on your computer includes the ê character (and many other accented characters), and many of them include ō as well. So before you try to create a composite character, thoroughly explore the Insert | Symbol dialog (both “(normal text)” and other fonts) to see if the character you want is already available. (In Word 2007, 2010, and 2013, access the Symbol dialog by choosing More Symbols... on the menu you get when you click on Symbol in the Symbols group on the Insert tab of the Ribbon.)

Figure 1. The Symbol dialog showing accented characters

Note that the Unicode character set includes many thousands of characters, and no one font contains them all, but one of the largest fonts available to Word is Arial Unicode MS. This font is installed by default in Windows XP; in earlier Windows versions, it may not be installed on your machine, but you can opt to install it by rerunning Office setup; find instructions in this Microsoft Knowledge Base article.

Most accented characters, such as those mentioned above, will be found in the Latin Extended-A, Latin Extended-B, and Latin Extended Additional character subsets. Many other useful symbols can be found in the Letterlike Symbols subset.

Figure 2: Symbol dialog showing Combining Diacritical Marks character subset

Another subset that may be useful is the Combining Diacritical Marks subset. The characters in this subset are designed to combine with whatever character is inserted immediately after them. Run-of-the-mill fonts include combining forms of the grave and acute accents, tilde, hook above, and dot below (Arial Unicode MS includes many more). There is no advantage to using these in preference to combined forms of letters that already have these accents, but they can be useful in combination with letters that don’t normally have them. For example, the font may include ã and ñ, but if you want to put a tilde over some other letter, then you can use the Combining Tilde. Note that ordinarily you must type the combining character first, then the diacritical mark from the Insert | Symbol dialog.

Look for an existing font

If the character you want is commonly used in mathematics or science, or if it is a common symbol or “dingbat,” you may be able to find it in the Symbol font, Wingdings, Wingdings 2, or some other special symbol font. Arial Unicode MS includes an IPA Extensions character subset, but there are also specific IPA fonts containing the required characters for phonetic spelling of words. So look at the fonts you already have installed; if you don’t find the character you need, search online for a likely font.

Figure 3. Symbol dialog showing the IPA Extensions character subset

If all else fails…

If you cannot find the character you need in any font you have installed or can locate, then you may be able to create it by combining two or more existing characters. To do this you will use an EQ \o (Overstrike) field to superimpose characters (this is one of several methods described in the article “How to create a character with a bar over it”). There are several ways to insert such a field and many ways to fine-tune and format it, plus a few “gotchas” we’ll discuss here.

Creating an Overstrike field

Elements of the field

The basic syntax of the Overstrike field is:

EQ \o (x,y)

where x and y are the characters you want to superimpose. The field places each successive character on top of the previous one. You can use as many characters as you want; just separate them with commas.

Important Note: Use commas as the separators if the decimal symbol for your system is a period (specified as part of the regional settings in Microsoft Windows Control Panel). If the decimal symbol for your system is a comma, use semicolons.

Inserting the field

There are basically two ways to insert an EQ (or any other) field in Word:

Through Word’s Field dialog

  1. Open the Field dialog:

  • Word 2003 and earlier: Insert | Field

  • Word 2007 and above: Insert | Text | Quick Parts | Field

  1. In the Field dialog, select Eq in the “Field names” list. You will get the following dialog:

Figure 4. Field dialog with Eq field selected.

  1. You’ll see that there is a button for Equation Editor…. You can do lots of cool things with the Equation Editor, but that’s not what you want here. Instead click the button for Field Codes. In the ensuing dialog, click the Options… button, which will open the Field Options dialog.

Figure 5. EQ field Field Options dialog

  1. If you select the \O switch and click Add to Field, you’ll get the result shown in Figure 5. You then still have to type your elements (characters) into the text box. If the characters are ones you can’t enter via the keyboard, you can paste them in using Ctrl+V, but in order to do so you will have to have copied them before entering the dialog. You can also use Alt+0xxx combinations to insert characters if you know the appropriate ASCII codes.

Important Note: To use a comma, open parenthesis, or backslash character as one of the characters, precede the symbol with a backslash: \, \( \\.

Manually

Using the Field dialog requires a lot of clicking, there is no easy way to insert characters that can’t be typed from the keyboard, and (as we will see later), you’ll need to edit the field by hand, anyway, so it’s usually easier just to insert it manually to begin with.

  1. Start by pressing Ctrl+F9. This inserts the field braces with two spaces between them and the insertion point placed between the spaces:

  2. Type the required field syntax between the braces, beginning with EQ \o and the parentheses, inserting your characters, separated by commas, between the parentheses.

  3. Press F9 to toggle field codes and update the field.

Formatting the field

Each character in the field is printed within an invisible character box. Options align the boxes on top of one another. You can use the following options to modify the \o switch.

\al        At the left edge.

\ac       In the center (the default).

\ar        At the right edge.

Note that center alignment is the default; you do not need to use an alignment option if you want the characters centered.

Inserting characters in the field is just a rough start. In order to get the proper relationship between the characters, you may need to format one or more of them as raised, lowered, superscript, or subscript (through the Format | Font dialog) or a different font altogether. You can also change the font size and spacing of the individual characters. In fact, you can apply any kind of font formatting to the characters in the field that you might apply to any text anywhere. This may require considerable trial and error, but ultimately you should be able to get the effect you desire. Once you get the desired result, you will probably want to save it as an AutoText entry for ease of reuse.

“Gotchas”

  • No matter how you’ve inserted the EQ field, the first thing you’ll need to do is remove the trailing space from the field. Whenever you press Ctrl+F9 to insert field braces, Word inserts two spaces; the field code sits between them. Usually these spaces don’t make any difference in the field results, but for some reason the trailing space shows up in the result of all EQ fields. So you’ll need to press Alt+F9 to display the field code, delete the space at the end of the field, then Alt+F9 again and F9 to update.

Figure 6. Field code showing trailing zero

  • If the comma is the decimal separator on your system, see also first of the two “Important Notes” above.

  • If one of your characters is a comma, backslash, or opening parenthesis, see the second “Important Note.”

Caveats about slashed zeroes

One of the most commonly requested combined characters is a slashed zero. The purpose of this character is to distinguish a zero from a capital O. In the early days of computing, it was not unusual for printer-resident fonts to have a slashed zero; this usage was a carryover from handwriting; in some European countries it is still common to put a cross on 7s to distinguish them from 1s and on z’s to distinguish them from 2s. A slashed zero can still be useful in situations where letters and numbers are mixed in such a way that it may not be clear what is what, such as product key codes.

Occasionally you will see a suggestion to use Unicode character 00D8. This is not a zero at all but rather a capital O with a stroke; needless to say, it is not satisfactory.

Although it is possible to create a slashed zero by using an EQ field to combine a slash and a zero, consider these caveats:

  • This is rarely necessary in modern printed text since contemporary fonts clearly distinguish O and 0, and they are quite distinct electronically even if they appear similar to the eye.

  • The zero will not be usable in computation.

If the slashed zero is needed in isolated instances to represent the appearance of handwritten or legacy computer-printed text, by all means use the EQ field to create it. If the character is needed for actual practical use, it is preferable to look for a font that contains a slashed zero at position 0048 ASCII (Unicode 0030). Such fonts seem to be especially popular with ham radio operators, whose call signs may include both 0 and O. The names and sources of many such fonts can be found by googling for “slashed zero font.” One collection is offered by Proggy Fonts (some of the offered fonts have a zero with a dot in the center rather than a slash).

Another overstrike example

Another common request is to apply both a superscript and a subscript number in the same position. By far the easiest way to do this is to use the Equation Editor built into Word, which offers templates for placing superscripts and subscripts. Note that an equation object can be formatted as In Line With Text (and this is the default in Word 2000, 2002, and 2003), so there is no very good reason not to use the Equation Editor for this, but it can be done with an EQ field if you insist.

Figures 7 and 8 below show the same layout created with Equation Editor and an EQ field, both in 12-point Times New Roman at 200% Zoom.

Figure 7. Superscript and subscript created with Equation Editor

Figure 8. Superscript and subscript created with EQ field

Figure 8 was created beginning with the field { EQ \o (2,3)}. To achieve the result seen, the EQ field was first formatted as 10-point Times New Roman (the N remains 12-point). Superscript and subscript formatting were then applied to the 2 and 3 respectively (you can use Format | Font: Superscript/Subscript or the Ctrl+Shift+= and Ctrl+= shortcuts). This gets you most of the way, but it is then necessary to select the 2 and raise it 2 points (Format | Font | Character Spacing: Raised by 2 points) and lower the 3 by 2 points. If you start with a different font size, some trial-and-error experimentation will be required to arrive at the required settings.

Important Note: References to "Equation Editor" above are to the Microsoft Equation 3.0 utility provided to Microsoft by Design Science (publisher of MathType) and not the new equation editor accessed via Insert | Symbols | Equation in Word 2007 and 2010.

This article copyright © 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014 by Suzanne S. Barnhill.