I recently attended a meeting where an agenda item was to review a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. One bullet point showed a daily cost of 37 cents. Several people wanted the bullet point to show 37¢. Others commented that there is no way to use these symbols as the cents sign since they weren’t on your computer keyboard. This got me thinking about the different methods you can insert special characters in Windows .
It’s funny but if you were to ask me last night if there was a key for the cents sign on my PC keyboard, I would’ve said “yes”. I was wrong. It was there on typewriters but abandoned when keyboards emerged. The cent sign is one of many currency characters you see in print, but don’t see on your keyboard. Other special characters include the degree symbol, foreign characters, math signs and trademarks. So, how do insert these special symbols?
The first questions is where do you need to use the special characters? There are two main areas:
- A Microsoft product like Word, Excel, etc
- A web page
Method 1: Look for an Insert Symbol Menu option
The easiest method is to check your program for a menu option that allows you to insert symbols. Many Microsoft products include this option. For example, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint all have an Insert menu with an option for Symbol. The most common symbols are included.
The nice thing about this symbol utility is you don’t need to figure out which code set to use. You simply highlight the symbol and click the Insert button and then close the utility. However, you could change the code set by choosing another option from the drop-down list. Presently, you can use:
- Unicode Hex (default)
- ASCII (decimal)
- ASCII (text)
In the example above, the dialog has 4 areas but these can change based on your options. Only the Unicode (hex) option shows a Subset drop-down menu at the top. This dialog is consistent with most Microsoft products.
- This area shows your Symbols or Special Characters. The default starts on the Symbols tab. In this example, I’ve clicked on the Cents symbol.
- This drop down allows you to select between Unicode and ASCII.
- Depending on your selection, you may see a predefined shortcut. For the cent sign, it’s Ctrl + / + c.
- To accept the assigned Symbol, click the Insert button.
Using the Keyboard shortcut or AutoCorrect
If you look at the screen snap above, you’ll see a shortcut has been assigned to this symbol . If you frequently use a symbol, the keystroke option may be the fastest method. You can also change the Shortcut key using the button.
An alternate method is to use the AutoCorrect… button and assign a new set of keystrokes that are intuitive to you. This is the same function that allows you to type (c) and get a copyright symbol.
Entering Character Codes: Unicodes (Hex)
The Unicodes work in an odd way. You type the code such as 0+0+A+2 and then press Alt+X. While I can get these steps to work in Microsoft Word, I can’t get them to work in Excel.
Entering Character Codes: ASCII (
Method 2: Using the Key Equivalent
On some Microsoft applications such as Microsoft Outlook, you don’t have the option to insert symbols. This is also true of many other programs too. In these instances, you need to find the character code that maps to the symbol, graphic or letter you wish to insert.
The two main code sets are ASCII and Unicode. Most people have heard of the acronym ASCII. It stands for the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. There are 256 numeric codes that represent most North American and Western European symbols as well as non-printable codes like the DEL key. For example, the ASCII code for the cent sign is 155.
To insert a special symbol using your ASCII code,
- Find your symbol and number using an ASCII chart. You want the number listed in the Dec column.
- Press your Alt key.
- Type the ASCII number using your keyboard number pad.
For example, to get the cent sign, I would press my Alt key and type 155 using the number pad keys. For the degree sign, I press the Alt key and type 167.
Unicode is another set of codes that includes more symbols from other languages. You might think of UNICODE as a superset. For example, I could press my Alt key followed by 0162 on my number pad and get the cent sign as well. Notice that the numeric key value isn’t always the same between ASCII and Unicode.
Method 3: Using Windows Character Map program
If you’re like me, you don’t like looking up codes. Instead, you just want to see a graphical representation of the symbols and say “that one!” This is especially true if the symbol is one you rarely use. For these times, you can use Windows Character Map.
To use Windows Character Map Tool,
- From the Start menu, select Run…
- In the Open: textbox, type charmap
- Click OK.
An insert symbol tool similar to the one in Microsoft Word appears. When you click a symbol, a larger image appears with the description and key codes displayed on the status line.
You can click the Select button and then copy the symbol to your clipboard to paste into another program. Or, you can type the keystroke equivalent. In the example above, it would be the Alt key followed by 0177 on your number pad. Not all the symbols have a keystroke equivalent.
Although Windows allows you to enter in these special symbols using keyboard alternatives, it doesn’t mean the symbols display the same way for everyone. Some people have devices that don’t allow these ALT symbols to be viewed. If you’re creating documentation for others or on the web, I would definitely test these special symbols out first.
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