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Diacritical marks

It was my inability to produce the diacritical mark for "cliche" that produced "bromide". Another reason to use html?

-- Edward Tufte

How do you type alt+0233?

I wish I could use my Mac at the office.

é isn't so bad, though, if you're using HTML.

Why don't keyboards have a diacritical "shift" key?

-- Mike Combs (email)

It certainly could; you just have to reprogram another generally useless key, like scroll lock. I suppose alt+0233 is what happens when useful hardware is removed, and software has to compensate.

See this article from the Straight Dope for a history lesson in forgotten keystrokes.

-- Scott Zetlan (email)

The article mentioned by Kindly Contributor Scott Zetlan eventually led to discovery of the "fn" key on my PowerBook, which turns out to be useful (changes mode of page scroll arrows). Never saw or used the key before.

-- Edward Tufte

Came across this quite by accident but it immediately brought this thread to mind:

"Chalk and cheese" as opposed to "apples and oranges" - perhaps they could run a spectro analysis of that.

-- David Montgomery (email)

In relation to "useless keys," these two entries from "The Hacker's Dictionary" ( came to mind...

double bucky: adj. Using both the CTRL and META keys. "The command to burn all LEDs is double bucky F."

This term originated on the Stanford extended-ASCII keyboard, and was later taken up by users of the {space-cadet keyboard} at MIT. A typical MIT comment was that the Stanford {bucky bits} (control and meta shifting keys) were nice, but there weren't enough of them; you could type only 512 different characters on a Stanford keyboard. An obvious way to address this was simply to add more shifting keys, and this was eventually done; but a keyboard with that many shifting keys is hard on touch-typists,who don't like to move their hands away from the home position on the keyboard.

quadruple bucky: n., obs. 1. On an MIT {space-cadet keyboard}, use of all four of the shifting keys (control, meta, hyper, and super) while typing a character key. 2. On a Stanford or MIT keyboard in {raw mode}, use of four shift keys while typing a fifth character, where the four shift keys are the control and meta keys on *both* sides of the keyboard. This was verydifficult to do! One accepted technique was to press the left-control and left-meta keys with your left hand, the right-control and right-meta keys with your right hand, and the fifth key with your nose.

-- Max Houck

The vowels with the acute accent can be obtained by pressing "Alt GR" and the character key at the same time. This is certainly true for the UK keyboard and may be true for the US one.

Other nationality keyboards have a combination of dedicated keys for those characters (the common ones in use in that language) and "dead" keys. A dead key is one where nothing happens when you press it, until you press another. For example, one common dead key is the "~". Type this on a Spanish (I think) keyboard and nothing happens. Then type "n" and you will get the "n" with the "~" above it.

-- Adam

This is clearly off the topic of the post but here my 2 cents worth on the subject of typing diacriticals

Keystroke combinations for typing diacriticals are accessing particular symbols in a font (where font is a translation table between character number and glyph). The keystrokes differ in part because the fonts differ, i.e. an acute e may occupy position 142 in a Macintosh font while in a Windows font it occupies position 233. Consequently when a Macintosh text file is read with a Windows editor the eacute beomes a blank space because there is no glyph at position 142 in a windows font.

This occured because 8-bit ASCII initally specified only 128 positions and left the other 256 up to the manufacturer. With the adoption of 16-bit Unicode font tables by XP and MacOS X as a standard. This will tend to diminish this type of problem as the positions of glyphs will be standard. Unfortunately this is not standard yet and many legacy documents remain in ASCII

HTML offers system independent representation of glyphs by telling the browser specifically which glyph to use and letting the browser find it in the tables (typing é wil give glyph 142 in a Macintosh browser and glyph 233 in a Windows browser). So don't bother learning the shortcuts for characters if you plan to put your documents on the web not unless you have a ASCII to HTML translator that can automatically translate your characters. A better option is to learn a little HTML.

-- John walker (email)

Moving, maybe, slightly further off topic but along the same lines, one thing to be wary of is writing web documents in MS Word, and possibly some other MS applications. Microsoft added some extra characters to the ISO 8859-1 character set, in an area where there are normally no printing characters, when it created the Windows character set. These characters include such things as "smart quotes". If you have Word convert your standard quotes to "smart quotes" for you, when your document is displayed on a non-Windows device, these characters are not shown. You can lose quite a lot of punctuation this way. The obvious thing is to not use Word for any document that will go on the web, but for those of you who have to, or wish to, it is best to turn "smart quotes" off and to use the HTML encoding for less common characters and, I think, the Euro symbol.

-- Adam (email)

We talk of diacriticals as if they are foreign to the standard English keyboard, but of course the points over "i" and "j" are also diacriticals.

-- Martin Ternouth (email)

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the International Keyboard.

It looks exactly like a normal US keyboard: using it (in Windows) is just a matter of switching the keyboard layout to 'United States-International'.

With this layout, five keys (' " ` ~ ^) become dead keys. When you press them nothing happens, the actual character is determined by the key you press next.

A few examples:

` A: à
' O: ó
' C: ç
^ O: ô
~ N: ñ
" U: ü

Extrapolate from these and you'll see that with two intuitive keystrokes you can generate most of the diacriticals you'll ever need.

If you do need a glyph that can't be produced this way, never fear. The International Keyboard allows you to use the right Alt key in combination with all the other keys to produce additional 100 characters such as: curly quotes, ß æ © ® ¹ ² ³ þ ¿.

The only disadvantage is you have to press space after the apostrophe key when you actually need an apostrophe, but this is something that is easily forgotten after a couple of hours of practice.

I've used this system to write Italian, French and German for all my digital life, and it works great.

-- Stefano J. Attardi (email)

Maybe this is a bit behind the curve, but a good font manager will allow you to copy out the exact character you need (if it's available in the typeface you're using) and will also show you the keystroke combination for easy insertion of regularly used characters next time around.

-- Steve Sprague (email)

Stefano J. Attardi's suggestion is an interesting one that had never occurred to me - and probably workable for UK users as the US keyboard is so similar. I suppose that for users of other keyboards, it has less attraction as they have different layouts - e.g. the AZERTY keyboards, or the French, shifted-numerals. They do have more accessible diacritical marks anyway, so there is possibly less need for these users to change. I'm not sure how easy it is to get umlauts on the French keyboard, though.

Does such a "US-International" keyboard exist on systems other than Windows? Do these systems make it easier to use diacritical marks anyway?

Could there be a key introduced to keyboards (like the "Fn" key) that toggles dead keys on and off? Does anyone know of any systems that have such functionality?

One useful font viewer, in Windows, is the "Character Map" which does the same as the font managers suggested by Steve Sprague (it might be what you were referring to, Steve?). The short-cut is under the Accessories | System Tools section of the Start menu. In here you can assign a short-cut key, thus allowing access to all available characters with one, combination key stroke.

-- Adam (email)

The stock US keyboard layout on Mac OSX 10.3 maps the following keys to the following accents.

alt-`: grave
alt-e: acute
alt-u: trema
alt-i: circumflex
alt-n: tilde? The thing over n in spanish.

The "US extended" keyboard adds a wide range of european diacriticals, including a bar (for &lbar; type characters, mid dots, upperdots, some sort of underline thing, something that looks like two ``, and then some).

All the settings are in "System preferences" under "international", including the ability to turn a visual keyboard map that responds when you hold down modifier keys to indicate what you'll get.

-- Stephen van Egmond

For writing in Quark (that is, serious book design), I use a paper guide and Key Finder to find diacritical marks. And a little help from my design associate, sometimes even to construct a new letterform.

For email and this board, I now simply cut and paste from Google after finding the word with its diacritical marks.

-- Edward Tufte

For special characters in Windows just use Character Map (charmap.exe)

The é in "Cliché" is ALT-0233 on the number pad.

-- David White (email)

It's been a few years since anybody has posted to this thread, and that's entirely fitting: my lazy solution wouldn't have worked quite as well 5-6 years ago.

I'm not exactly a slacker, but I find it slow and tedious to scour tables for arcane key combinations. For me, it's faster to find the character I need somewhere else, then simply copy and paste.

EXAMPLE: if you type the words "cafe" or "cliche" in MS Word, it automatically adds the accent: cafe / cliche. So if I'm going to write "Avenue des Champs-Elysees" into a blog posting, I simply type "CLICHE cliche" in MS Word and steal out the "E" and the "e". Paste them in as raw text, then add HTML formatting later. Using hotkeys, that's much faster for me than digging 2-3 layers deep into the menus and scrolling through the tables -- much less changing my keyboard's format.

Then again, for something famous like that, just plug it into Wikipedia...then you can rip out the whole thing and save yourself even more keystrokes. Sometimes a quick Google search will suffice -- you can get the characters you need from the search results, no need to even touch the sites themselves.

WARNING: I used this method for the example above and lost ~17 minutes reading Wikipedia entries about the Elysian Fields, Schiller and Polanco, an upscale neighborhood in Mexico City. That was great, but perhaps those inscrutable character tables have a hidden virtue: at least they don't tempt you to stray from your task.

For a less hit-and-miss approach, try the on-line translators like Babelfish ( Long story, but I spend an embarrassing amount of time composing short (and usually incorrect) sentences in Vietnamese, so I rely heavily on VDict (, a handy site that offers fuzzy search for definitions a virtual VN keyboard.

And guess what? There's a "e" in Vietnamese, too. What could be more historically ironic than using a post-Indochine website to compose in French?

-- Brian Clark (email)

Try the lovely Click to copy a character or its HTML code.

-- Jennifer Chen (email)

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