Inserting Special Characters

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How can I insert special characters, such as dingbats and accented letters, in my document?

Many Word users don't realize how easy it is to insert special characters. There are at least four ways to do it: through the Symbol dialog, using shortcut keys, automatically with AutoCorrect, or by direct keypad entry.

The Symbol dialog

The most comprehensive way to access symbols is through the Symbol dialog. To open this dialog:

  • Word 2003 and earlier: Choose Symbol…on the Insert menu.

  • Word 2007 and above: On the Insert tab, in the Symbols group, click Symbol and select More Symbols...

In the font list in the Symbol dialog, "(normal text)" means the font you are currently using. For more information about the other fonts listed, see Fonts in the Symbol dialog (below).

Figure 1. The Symbol dialog in Word 97

To insert a character, double-click on it or select it and press Enter or click the Insert button. The dialog stays open so that you can insert more than one character, and you can “step out” of the dialog to move the insertion point before choosing another character and inserting it.

Figure 2. The Symbol dialog in Word 2010

Note: In Word 2002 and above, the Symbol dialog is resizable: drag the handle in the bottom right corner to stretch it or double-click the title bar to maximize (and restore) it. This gives you a view of many more symbols without scrolling.

The list of recently used symbols makes it easy to reuse frequently used characters. In addition, in Word 2007 and above, the symbols in the MRU list are also the ones shown in the Symbol gallery at Insert | Symbols | Symbol. The ones shown above are the default selections in the gallery when you first start Word 2010.

Shortcut keys

Word has also made it very easy for you to insert many of these characters without recourse to the dialog—in particular special characters such as ® and international characters such as é. It does this through built-in shortcut keys. When you select a character in the dialog to which a shortcut key has been assigned (either by Word or by you, the user), it is displayed at the bottom of the dialog. The characters to which Word has assigned shortcut keys are broadly categorized as either “special characters” or “international characters.” Memorize the shortcuts for the characters you use often, use the dialog for the rest.

Special characters

Note that the Symbol dialog has two tabs: “Symbols” and “Special characters.” The latter both lists the shortcut key (if any) for each of a variety of characters and lets you insert the character directly (by selecting it and double-clicking or clicking Insert). The list is as follows:

In the above list, note the following:

  • In the shortcut keys for the em and en dashes, “Num -” means the minus sign on the numeric keypad, as opposed to the hyphen on the top row of the keyboard (that is the key used in the shortcuts for the nonbreaking and optional hyphens). If you are using a laptop computer that doesn't have a numeric keypad or for some other reason don't have easy access to the numeric keypad, you might want to assign different keyboard shortcuts to these symbols.
  • In the shortcut keys for the various quotation marks, ` (grave accent) is the key at the top left of your keyboard (it also has the tilde ~ on it); ' and " are the apostrophe and shifted apostrophe (quote). These keyboard shortcuts use what is called a “setup key.” The comma in the shortcut shows that you press, say, Ctrl+` and release. The status bar will display the combination you have pressed. You then press the remaining character. (As you will see, this technique is widely used in producing international characters.)

  • Other useful shortcuts that are not included in this list are Ctrl+@, Spacebar to produce the degree symbol (°) and Ctrl+/, c to produce the cent sign (¢).

  • On the Symbols tab, under “(normal text),” there are a number of fractions, which you can assign to shortcut keys if you don't want to use the AutoFormat method of inserting fractions. See also “How to create fractions in Word.”

You may wonder why some of these shortcuts are needed. For example, if you have “smart quotes” enabled on the AutoFormat As You Type tab of AutoCorrect Options , you will get these characters automatically. To access the AutoCorrect Options dialog:

  • Word 2003 and earlier: Tools | AutoCorrect or Tools | AutoCorrect Options…

  • Word 2007: Office Button | Word Options | Proofing: AutoCorrect Options…

  • Word 2010 and 2013: File | Options | Proofing: AutoCorrect Options…

Even with this option enabled, sometimes Word guesses wrong and gives you when you want ; and Word always gets it wrong when you need two opening quotes in a row. In such cases, it is convenient to be able to force Word to give you what you want.

Note that there are no assigned shortcut keys for some of the characters. You can assign your own shortcuts if you like; for example, I have Alt+Ctrl+M and Alt+Ctrl+N assigned to the em and en spaces. To assign a shortcut, just select the desired symbol and press the Shortcut Key… button. The Customize Keyboard dialog opens with the insertion point in the “Press new shortcut key” box. Just enter the key combination you want to use and click Assign. If you want this shortcut to be available in all your documents, click Close. If you are using a template other than Normal and want the shortcut key available only in documents based on that template, select it in the “Save changes in” list before closing the dialog.

You can use this same technique to assign a new shortcut to a character (even if Word already has a built-in one). The one you assign will take precedence over the built-in one. If you later decide you don't need this shortcut, select it in the “Current keys” list in the Customize Keyboard dialog and click Remove. Word will then revert to the built-in shortcut.

International characters

Word also provides built-in shortcuts for many of the accented and other special characters needed to type foreign words. If you are using a language other than English exclusively or primarily, there are more efficient ways to type (for more information on this, see Word's Help under “About multilingual features in Office” and other topics that will be listed if you search for “international features”), but for the occasional foreign (or domesticated) word that needs an accent, these shortcuts are very handy. Word provides a complete list of these shortcuts in the Help article “Keyboard shortcuts for international characters.” The list is as follows:

To produce

Press

à, è, ì, ò, ù
À, È, Ì, Ò, Ù

Ctrl+` (grave accent), the letter

á, é, í, ó, ú, ý
Á, É, Í, Ó, Ú, Ý

Ctrl+' (apostrophe), the letter

â, ê, î, ô, û
Â, Ê, Î, Ô, Û

Ctrl+Shift+^ (caret), the letter

ã, ñ, õ
Ã, Ñ, Õ

Ctrl+Shift+~ (tilde), the letter

Ctrl+Shift+: (colon), the letter

å, Å

Ctrl+Shift+@, a or A

æ, Æ

Ctrl+Shift+&, a or A

Ctrl+Shift+&, o or O

ç, Ç

Ctrl+, (comma), c or C

ð, Ð

Ctrl+' (apostrophe), d or D

ð, Ð

Ctrl+' (apostrophe), d or D

ø, Ø

Ctrl+/, o or O

¿

Alt+Ctrl+Shift+?

¡

Alt+Ctrl+Shift+!

ß

Ctrl+Shift+&, s

Note that in the above shortcuts, unlike many of the others, you get a different symbol depending on whether the combining letter is capital or lowercase.

AutoFormat and AutoCorrect

Many symbols are or can be entered in Word automatically through the action of AutoFormat As You Type and AutoCorrect.

AutoFormat As You Type

We have already mentioned the “Replace as you type” option to replace “straight quotes” with “smart quotes.” Other options are to replace “Fractions (1/2) with fraction character (½)” and “Hyphens (--) with dash (—).” Here's how the hyphen replacement works:

  • Two hyphens between words with no spaces--like this--will be converted to an em dash.

  • One or two hyphens between words preceded by a space will be converted to an en dash. This is true regardless of whether the hyphens are followed by a space, but if there are spaces before an after the hyphens --  like this - or like this, then the spaces will be retained around the en dash. (The reason for that is that printing convention in the U.K. is to use an en dash with preceding and following spaces where an em dash would be used in the U.S.)

The one case in which this conversion can be particularly annoying is when you want to use a hyphen before a word to indicate a suffix, for example, in writing about “words that end in -ing.” Word will perversely convert the hyphen to an en dash. When this happens, just press Ctrl+Z (Undo) to reverse the AutoFormat.

Important Note: None of the AutoFormat conversions happens until you type a space or punctuation mark after the word following the hyphen(s).

If you understand how these AutoFormat options work, they will save you time and effort most of the time. But since they don't always work just the way you want, keyboard shortcuts may still be needed for ultimate control. And remember that whenever Word converts anything you type into something you don't want, you can reverse just the AutoCorrect or AutoFormat with Undo (Ctrl+Z).

AutoCorrect

Many special characters are defined as AutoCorrect entries. Since these all sort to the top of the AutoCorrect list, it is easy to review them. They are also summed up in this list, once found in Word's Help under the topic “symbols, creating automatically,” “Create arrows, faces, and other symbols automatically,” or Automatically insert an arrow, face, or other symbol”:

Note that some of these (such as ©, ®, ™) overlap Word's built-in shortcut keys. This gives you more than one way to accomplish the same thing. Also, the shortcut keys give you backup in case you want to delete the AutoCorrect entries. For example, perhaps you often create lists beginning with (a), (b), (c), and you get tired of having the list become (a), (b), ©. So you delete the AutoCorrect entry for (c). But you can still create © using Alt+Ctrl+C.

Note also that the remaining entries (the “dingbats”) are characters from the Wingdings font. They can be entered from any font and will not change if you change fonts.

You can create an AutoCorrect entry for any special character. Just select the character in the Symbol dialog, press the AutoCorrect… button, and type the combination of letters or symbols you want to be replaced by the given character. Note that, if the character is one from a symbol font—that is, one that is not available in standard ASCII/Unicode fonts—then the entry will be stored as “formatted text” and therefore will be entered in the selected font regardless of what font you are using in your document. Note also that formatted AutoCorrect entries are stored in Word's Normal template and, unlike AutoCorrect entries generally, are not available to other Office applications.

Direct keypad entry

The oldest way to insert special characters in Word, and still one of the most dependable, is to enter the character number on the numeric keypad. The 256-character ANSI character set actually contains about 224 “characters”; the first 32 positions (character numbers 0–31) are reserved for other keyboard functions and printer control commands such as Escape, Backspace, Tab, Line Feed, Carriage Return, and so on. If you know the number of the character you want, you can enter it by pressing the Alt key and typing the number, preceded by enough leading zeroes to pad it to four digits, on the numeric keypad. For example, to insert the ¥ character, you would enter Alt+0165. The advantage to this method is that it works in virtually any Windows application, not just Word.

But how can you find out the number of the character in question? If you select Insert | Symbol in Word 97 and above, this information is available from the status bar. When you select a character in the Symbol dialog, the status bar displays (for example) “Insert Times New Roman character 165.”

In Word 2000, Word also displays the Unicode number for character numbers 160 and above—for example, “Insert Times New Roman character 165, (Unicode: 00A5).”. For character numbers greater than 255, it displays the Unicode number only, and not the character number (unfortunately).

Word 2002 and above display the Unicode or character number (your choice) in the dialog itself:

Figure 3. The Symbol dialog in Word 2002 and above

In Word 2002 and above, you can also insert characters directly from the keyboard if you know the Unicode number, by typing the Unicode number and pressing Alt+X (this also works in certain dialogs, such as Find and Replace).

Another way is to use the Windows Character Map. This applet is one of Windows' Accessories and can be found at Start | All Programs | Accessories | System Tools.

Some other points worth noting

Fonts in the Symbol dialog

The first time you use this dialog, the Font box will probably be displaying “(normal text).” That means that the characters that will be inserted will come from the font you are currently using. Moreover, if you change the font of your document, the character you inserted will be changed to the new font.

Note for Word 97 and earlier: Current versions of Word use the same Font list in the Symbol dialog as in the Font box on the Formatting toolbar, that is, all the fonts installed in Windows are listed. Word 97 and earlier list only “decorative” fonts—that is, fonts whose character set is different from that of the standard alphanumeric font (the ASCII or ANSI character set). These are often called “symbol,” “dingbat,” or “pi” fonts. Several of the “Windows core fonts”—Symbol, Wingdings, Wingdings 2—are such fonts, and are by far the most frequently used (Zapf Dingbats is another commonly used one). If you have Internet Explorer installed, you probably also have Webdings. Word, Office, and other Microsoft applications install other fonts of this type, and others may come with your printer.

Even when only “decorative” fonts are listed, you may see fonts listed whose character set is identical to, say, Times New Roman (though the letters may be very ornamental, they are not “decorative” in this specific sense). And you may have “dingbat” fonts that are not listed. There is evidently a marker in font files that tells Word whether or not to include them in this category; some fonts have it unnecessarily, and some qualifying fonts are missing it. But you can force any installed font to appear in the list: just type in the font name exactly as it appears in Word's font list and press Enter or click anywhere in the character grid. The characters in that font should then appear. (Occasionally all the characters in a font will appear in the Symbol dialog as squares. This problem may or may not be solved by updating your display driver.)

How Word deals with symbols when you change fonts

There is a difference in the way Word treats the characters you insert from the Symbol dialog. As already stated, if you insert a character from “(normal text),” it is treated as interchangeable with the same character in any other font. This should not cause problems unless you change to a font that does not include these characters. For example, some free or cheap fonts, especially older ones, contain only the characters that can be entered from the keyboard and perhaps a few others. If you have inserted an accented letter that is not included in that font, it may be displayed and printed as a small square, or it may just not print at all. Also, the new Unicode versions of Windows core fonts contain many more characters than the standard ANSI character set, including characters such as:
 

These also will not will translate properly to older fonts that contain only the ANSI characters. Keep this in mind in deciding whether to insert a symbol that is part of the extended character set in Times New Roman or Arial or to use the same symbol from, say, the Symbol or Wingdings font.

When you insert a symbol from Symbol or Wingdings, Word treats it differently from a “(normal text)” character. In earlier versions of Word, these symbols were inserted as Symbol fields, which protected them from being updated when the font was changed. In newer Unicode-aware versions of Word, these characters are recognized as being different by having different glyph numbers from the standard character set (more on this later). If you insert one of these symbols and change the font of the paragraph it is in, it will not be changed. But if you insert a character from one of the fonts whose character set is the same as that of “(normal text),” Word recognizes this and will change it to a new font whether you want it to or not. Unfortunately, this also applies to bona fide symbol fonts that do not contain the “decorative” marker. (For a way around this, see How to protect symbols from updating when you apply a different font to a paragraph, below.)

What is Unicode?

A complete explanation of Unicode is beyond the scope of this article, but a rudimentary knowledge of it is helpful in understanding how fonts work in recent versions of Word. More information on the Unicode standard can be found in the Unicode Introduction at the Agfa Monotype Corporation Web site. (Agfa Monotype Corporation supplies many of the fonts distributed with Microsoft products, including Times New Roman and Arial; and they co-developed the Arial Unicode font with Microsoft.)

There is also a good Unicode Introduction on the unicode.org site.

According to the former article:

Unicode is a worldwide character encoding standard designed to enable the global interchange of multilingual digital information. The inventors of Unicode had the goal of supporting all the world's scripts while accommodating existing national and international character sets.

Most computer users in the West are accustomed to character sets based on the Latin-1 standard (ISO 8859 series), which contains only Latin-script characters for Western Europe. While Latin-1 supports about 200 characters, Unicode supports 65,000 characters.

According to this source, “A base-level Unicode-based conformant font would include: Pan-European Latin, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic.” If you look at Times New Roman or Arial in the Symbol dialog (provided you have the Unicode-based versions), you will see that they do indeed contain these characters. These character sets comprise 1,140 or so of the 65,000 characters supported by Unicode.

You can get specific information about which character sets a font contains by installing the Font Properties Extension, which you can download for free. Once you've installed it, right-click on any font displayed in the Fonts folder (c:\windows\fonts) and choose Properties. The “CharSet/Unicode” tab displays whatever information is available in the font, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Unicode information for the Times New Roman font

As an aside, the other tabs the Font Properties Extension gives you access to are also very interesting; for instance, this is the “Description” tab for Times New Roman:

Figure 4. The Description tab of the Properties dialog for the Times New Roman font

Note: Unfortunately, the Font Properties Extension does not work in Windows 7 and above.

The Unicode standard distinguishes between a “character” (such as a particular letter of the alphabet) and a “glyph” (the rendering of it in a particular font). “A character set [is] an ordered collection of characters, while a font is an ordered collection of glyphs.” The characters are considered interchangeable. Therefore, if you select a character in the “(normal text)” display in the Symbol dialog and press the Shortcut Key… button, the Customize Keyboard dialog displays, “Inserts the x character.” It says this even when it is incapable of displaying the character, in which case it shows: “Inserts the ? character.”

But when you select a symbol from one of the other (“decorative”) fonts in the dialog and press the Shortcut Key… button, the dialog displays, for example, “Wingdings: 61649,” where 61649 is the Unicode number of the character. Note, however, that this number is not a unique identifier of that specific symbol in that particular font. All symbol fonts use the Symbol character set, which has the range 61472–61695. So this number will be the same for the symbol in the same position in the character set in any symbol font.

In Word 97, there is no way to either ascertain the Unicode number of characters in the basic character set or to enter them manually through the numeric keypad as you can the ANSI character set.

As discussed above, in Word 2000 you can ascertain the Unicode number from the status bar, but you cannot insert an upper Unicode character directly in the document using that number (without resorting to a macro).

In Word 2002 and above, you can insert Unicode characters from the keyboard using Alt+X.

How to protect symbols from updating when you apply a different font to a paragraph

As noted earlier, Word doesn’t always recognize that fonts are meant to be “decorative,” and so characters from these fonts are not protected from updating. For example, you can insert a hedera (vine leaf) from the Minion Ornaments font (a Type 1 PostScript font), but if you change the font of an entire paragraph, the character will become an n. (You can guess that this will happen from the fact that Minion Ornaments is displayed in the Symbol dialog with Unicode (hex) values for the characters whereas, if you select a font such as Symbol, the display switches to show decimal ASCII values.) One way (possibly the only way) to prevent this from happening is to insert the character as a Symbol field. The syntax for this field is { SYMBOL 0xxx \f "Font Name" }. To enter the vine leaf character in this way, then, you would insert this field: { SYMBOL 0110 \f "Minion Ornaments" }—assuming you have the Minion Ornaments font installed. You can also enter the Unicode character number using the \u switch, but you still have to specify the font since the Unicode numbers are the same for all fonts using the “Symbol character set.”

Printing problems

Sometimes the symbols appear correctly on the screen but have the wrong character or a box when printed. Sometimes this can be fixed by changing settings in the printer driver (e.g. to print as graphics or by changing font substitution settings).

Related articles

Finding and replacing non-printing characters (such as paragraph marks), other special characters, and text formatting

Finding and replacing symbols

Inserting Hebrew vowels in a document, using the Hebrew language version of Word

This article copyright © 2001, 2009, 2011 by Suzanne S. Barnhill. A version of this article was previously published at http://word.mvps.org.