Mac 101: Inserting or typing uncommon characters

As a Mac consultant, I'm often asked some pretty bizarre questions. One that I frequently hear is "How do I type <some special character> on my Mac?" A good example of this is people who want to type fractions that look like this -- ½ -- rather than like 1/2, or plop a character like an umbrella -- ☂ -- or a skull and crossbones -- ☠ -- in the middle of a sentence.

It's actually quite easy to do this, although finding these uncommon characters isn't something that's readily apparent, especially to new Mac users. Follow along as I show you how to insert or type characters that won't be found on your keyboard.

The secret to playing with all of these bizarre characters is to get to know the Language & Text preference pane that can be found in System Preferences. Tap on the Input Sources tab, make sure that your default input source is selected (in the list of languages seen in the image below), and be sure to check the "Show Input menu in menu bar" box in at the lower part of the preference pane.

Note that I've also checked an input method named "Unicode Hex Input." I'll talk about that a little bit later. Now, when you click on the icon for the Input menu in your menu bar (it usually appears as the flag of your country), you'll see a menu appear. Select "Show Character Viewer" from that menu, and the viewer appears:

Scrolling through the list of different categories of characters on the left side of the viewer, you can choose from math, arrows, different types of parentheses, currency symbols, crosses, digits, Greek letters, ornamental punctuation, and even Braille patterns. If I click on the Miscellaneous category as seen above, a large group of symbols appears. In the screenshot above, I've chosen the "White Left Pointing Index" image. I can simply insert that character at my current insertion point in a document by clicking the insert button. All of those bizarre symbols in the image at the top of this Mac 101 post were just inserted into a Pages document in this manner.

Going through the process of inserting a symbol is fine if you're only going to be typing it once, but what if you need to re-use a specific character many times in a document? You can either do a copy and paste for each occurrence, or you can type the character using a unique hexadecimal code that is assigned to each character. To determine what that code is for any character, just click on the character in the viewer, then "hover" your cursor above it until a yellow tooltip appears near it as in the screenshot above). Make a note of the Unicode code number for the character; for the pointing finger, it's 261C.

To type the special characters, go back to the Input menu in the menu bar and select "Unicode Hex Input." Press and hold the Option key on your keyboard, and then type the hexadecimal code. In this case, you'd type Option-261C to make the left pointing index finger magically appear in your document.

You can also use the popular TextExpander application for Mac OS X ($34.95 from Smile Software) to create shortcut snippets that you can type to display a character. The company uses an example on their website of typing eeuro to enter a Euro symbol (€) -- you could set up a snippet named "lfinger" to enter the left pointing index finger symbol without every needing to bring up the Input menu or Character Viewer.

This tip is not only fun, but extremely useful in those cases where you want to use a specific non-standard character or symbol to call attention to something in a document. Be sure to visit our earlier Mac 101 articles for other time-saving tips.