Never Google Punctuation Marks or Accents Again

Stop searching for “em dash”—and start using more em dashes.

Illustration of a keyboard with symbols.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by iStock/Getty Images.

The standard QWERTY keyboard is a rather limited tool. Designed and tinkered with over the early 1870s by newspaper editor Christopher Latham Sholes, the typewriter configuration has barely changed since 1873, when the rights to the product were sold to E. Remington and Sons, which released the following keyboard:

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 - , _

Q W E R T Y U I O P :

⋮ A S D F G H J K L M

& Z C X V B N ? ; . ’

That’s right, no zero or 1.

These days, we have a few extra characters at our fingertips. We have brackets, (round), [square], and {squiggly}. We have all the symbols we might need for typing fake $@*% words. We can over! enthuse! our emails! But we still do not have our deliciously protracted, overapplied em dash—a beloved tool in many a writer’s toolbox. And while the French-Canadian keyboard comes with an accented é, we English speakers are still stuck with our regular old e, making it difficult to differentiate between rose and rosé.

Fortunately, we’ve found ways other than the dreaded “Insert > Symbol” on Microsoft Word to say what we need.

A recent conversation on Slate’s Slack revealed just how creative writers can be in avoiding the Insert path. Many admit they Google, copy, and paste characters that are AWOL on the QWERTY when they need them: the dashes, the accents, the umlauts. In high school, I regularly Googled the name of my own school—after all, when you attend Sacré Cœur and take an obnoxious pride in spelling it correctly, the search engine becomes your meilleur ami. Others admit to typing the letters c-a-f-e in Word and stealing the autocorrected é when they need it (déjà vu works too), but if you want to be a jerk about how you spell doppelgänger and Sūdoku, there’s no obvious autocorrect for umlauts or macrons—if you’re trying to write about Björk, it’s back to Google or the cumbersome Word process.

The debate surrounding the use of the em dash rages on in editorial circles—perhaps, as the Ringer writer Kate Knibbs tweeted, the difficulty of applying it discourages its overuse (and perhaps that em dash could have been a semicolon). But it’s not working—we writers are a resourceful bunch, at least when it comes to em dashes. There’s Google, of course (Slate editor Dan Kois admits to keeping a bookmark of the search results for “em dash”), but the true em dash abusers among us have actually learned the keyboard shortcut: [Option] + [Shift] + [-] on Mac, or [Ctrl] + [Alt] + [-] on PC.

There are other lesser known Mac keyboard shortcuts out there. For the accented letters, there’s the Option key—pressing [Option] + [E] will provide a ´, which you can follow up with any vowel of your choosing. [Option] + [`] will provide a grave accent, [Option] + [I] a circumflex, [Option] + [U] an umlaut, and [Option] + [N] a tilde. On PC, it’s [CTRL] + various combinations. On Apple keyboards, you can also hold down a letter to see alternative versions of that letter: holding A, for example, offers eight alternatives, à, á, â, ä, æ, ã, å, and ā.

But wait there’s more—dozens more. There are sites out there dedicated to describing the full range of Mac keyboard modifiers, if you want to use Google to actually learn something, rather than copy-pasting. You want ®? It’s [Option] + [R]. ? [Option] + [2]. Paying in €? [Option] + [Shift] + [2]. Tired of typing out “degrees”? [Option] + [Shift] + [8] will bring you °.

But honestly, who has time to memorize all these? Certainly not people who spend their days typing words on the internet. (As Slate’s Heather Schwedel noted, “it seems easier to wait for computers to read my mind.”)

But it doesn’t have to be this way—for Mac users at least. It turns out there’s a shortcut to end all shortcuts—one that cuts out having to remember (almost) anything at all.

As outgoing Slate design director Jason Santa Maria pointed out, there is such a thing as a Keyboard Viewer on Mac. Enabling it brings up a virtual keyboard that can show you the alternate keys—all the options at your fingertips when you hold down [Option]. (PC users have an OSK, or On-Screen Keyboard, which replaces a regular keyboard—SHIFT brings up a capitalized set of letters, but it’s not clear it can do much else).

Here’s how to access it:

• Go to System Preferences, and click Keyboard.

• Under the Keyboard tab of Keyboard, check the box “Show Keyboard & Emoji Viewers in menu bar.”

• An icon should appear in your menu bar, featuring the looped square symbol (⌘)—click on it, then “Show Keyboard Viewer,” to display the on-screen keyboard.

• It may look like the normal keyboard, but by holding down [Option], [Shift], or [Option] + [Shift], you can see the alt-keys. [Option] + [Shift], for example, will show you the glorious em dash in place of the hyphen.

• You can press the button on either the digital or physical keyboard.

Keyboard viewer GIF

From here, you’ll only need to remember the three modifiers: [Option], [Shift], or [Option] + [Shift]. It may sound like a few more steps than you’re used to (um, four) but truly, you have nothing to lose but your QWERTY chains.

But bad news for ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ users, who were no doubt reading this just to find out how to type their little friend. Not all the symbols in his body are available, even on the extended keyboard. It’s back to Google for your bemused friend.