Keep Your Characters Straight With 3 Free Tools


Symbol CaddyTwenty-six letters aren’t enough for many of the projects I work on. I need accented letters, symbols and all the characters that make up a full character set. I also need a way to easily use those characters that don’t appear on my keyboard. Not all software apps come with built-in glyph tools and, if you routinely switch back and forth between different programs, a built-in tool may not be enough. Whether you’re typing up a technical document or laying out an ad, having a character selection tool that beats the standard Character Map can help you get the right glyph every time.

Character Tools on Mac

There are a surprising number of character management widgets for Macs. Personally, I use Symbol Caddy — it’s a Dashboard widget that allows you to copy symbols from the widget into whatever app you’re using. It also offers an HTML mode, which provides you the HTML entity code for the character. It’s particularly easy to use, with characters organized into specific groups.

The fact that Symbol Caddy is located on the Dashboard makes it easy to quickly access and then switch back to the program I’m working in. It significantly speeds up my work because I don’t have to launch a separate program or hunt around for where Character Map might have hid a particular symbol.

An alternative that also operates through the Dashboard is CharacterPal, which provides shortcuts for individual characters as you mouse over them. CharacterPal offers a few more tools than Symbol Caddy, including the ability to view special characters in different fonts before copying them as well as the ability to choose between a variety of different keyboard layouts. There are also other character management tools available for Macs, including both stand-alone applications and other Dashboard options.

Character Tools on Windows

While the various versions of Windows come with Character Map, there have been some efforts to improve on that particular tool. GlyphThis is one alternative, offering features like the ability to change grid dimensions as well as improved capabilities for including symbols and characters from Wingdings and other glyph fonts without having to constantly switch back and forth between fonts. GlyphThis is the work of one person, Matthew Fowler, but he’s been very good about updating the program as needed.

The alternatives beyond GlyphThis for PCs are relatively limited. The updates made to Character Map in recent versions of Windows does make it a more useful tool than previous versions. Depending on how heavily you use special characters — and how willing you are to memorize a long list of keyboard shortcuts — you can make Character Map work for you if need be. Additionally, many font management applications can provide you with a way to look through individual characters. A few options include Suitcase and MasterJuggler; prices can vary significantly.

What tools do you use for accessing special characters?




Best way I’ve ever found for Windows: US-International keyboard driver. It has been around since at least Windows 3.1 as a native part of the OS.

Works seamlessly with virtually every Windows application.

Provides simple and quick access to many accented and special characters. Mnemonic and unobtrusive. In fact, even though I work mostly in English, I leave the US-International driver enabled as my default.

To enable in XP:

Control Panel | Regional and Language Options | Languages tab | Details

Under “Installed Services”, add United States-International as one of the Keyboards.

(Set it as the default input language if you wish. Otherwise, switch between/among keyboards using an icon on your taskbar or a hotkey.)

Quick primer: my most frequent alternate language is French. I can access all French accents using three standard QWERTY keys which have now become “dead keys”–the apostrophe, the circumflex (Shift+6) and the “accent grave” (the key which also has the tilde, just to the left of number 1).

Press the dead key first, then the letter to which the accent will apply. Easy.

If you need the original value of these three keys, either:

1) type a letter which doesn’t take an accent after the dead key (for example, “t” doesn’t take an accent (at least, not in the languages I use!) so pressing apostrophe followed by a “t” gives simply ‘t) or

2) press the spacebar after pressing the dead key.

For other special characters (including the copyright, euro and degree symbols, fractions such as one half etc.) hold down the right Alt key while you press another key. Shift+rightAlt+key gives you a whole other selection.



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