Shortcuts for entering foreign-language characters

Teach these shortcuts for entering special characters in documents and e-mail messages.

People from every corner of the planet are surfing the Web and getting into the e-mail act. Just this week I received e-mail from TechRepublic members in Canada, Russia, and France.

I asked one of my colleagues to double-check a French reply I was composing, and she wanted to know, "Hey, how did you get those accented characters in Outlook?" My little trick isn't anything fancy, but she was impressed and vowed to use it. So here's a tip you can include in your lesson plan the next time you teach a Word class.

More than one way to accentuate your text
More and more often, people with names like Renée are including the accented characters in their e-mail signatures. But how do you enter those special characters when they don't appear on your keyboard? There are several ways:
  • Reconfigure your keyboard for a different language. This approach remaps the key assignments, but it doesn't change the physical appearance of the keyboard. You still have to figure out which key combinations generate the characters you need.
  • Use the [Alt] key along with a code on the numeric keypad. This trick has been around for ages. You press the [Num Lock] key, and then hold down the [Alt] key while you enter the extended ASCII code on the numeric keypad. When you release the [Alt] key, the special character whose ASCII code you typed appears in your document. This approach is very popular because it's easy to create a cheat sheet of the codes you use most often. Many users simply tape the cheat sheet near their monitors for easy reference. The problem with this approach, of course, is locating a master list of the ASCII codes, and the fact all applications don't necessarily know how to interpret those codes when you enter them from the keyboard.
  • Use Word's Insert Symbol feature. This trick is the one I use. Create a master list of the codes you use most often. Then copy the characters you need out of that document on an as-needed basis.
To try out the ASCII method in a Word document or an Outlook message, hold down [Alt] and enter 111 on the numeric keypad. When you release the [Alt] key, you should see a lowercase “o.” For a complete list of ASCII codes, check out The foreign-language characters start at 128.
Create once, copy many
When I'm going to need to use foreign-language characters in an Outlook e-mail message, I first open a Word document like the one shown in Figure A. When I need one of the characters, I just copy it and paste it into the body of the e-mail message.

Figure A
Here's my electronic cheat sheet of foreign-language characters.

How do you create the cheat sheet? In Word 97, open the Insert menu and choose Symbol. When you select the Font's "normal text" option, you should see all of the special characters available on your system. Click on a character to enlarge it for preview, as we've done in Figure B. Then double-click or click the Insert button to place that character in your document.

Figure B
Use the Insert Symbol dialog box to create your master list of special characters.

To comment on this tip—or if you know a better way to enter foreign-language characters in documents or e-mail messages—please post a comment below or send us a note.

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