Accessing a font’s alternate characters

By Mike Jackson

Posted on Saturday, November 12th, 2022

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Christopher Latham Sholes invented the first practical typewriter in the late 1860s. While slightly different, today’s computer keyboards were modeled after that same basic design and layout. Along with letters and numerals, this layout accommodates 32 symbols and punctuation marks. But there are many other characters that sign makers and graphic designers need. The additional necessary characters are hidden somewhat, but they’re still available as “alternate characters.”

For example, the dollar sign, “$”, is located as Shift-4 on the keyboard. But where’s the cent sign (¢)? Have you ever needed to find the degree character—for when you had to indicate a temperature, like 55°F? How about the copyright character (©)? Or the trademark (™) character? Obviously, these letter characters are available, but you need a little to know how to access them.

The alternate characters are normally available to a user by entering the appropriate alternate character key code. Many fonts come with a character chart showing those key codes but, if not, there are other ways to find them. In Microsoft Windows, there’s a simple utility called “Character Map”. On a Mac platform, I believe it is called “Character Viewer.”

Here’s the Character Map in Windows.

Using the Character Map

To find the Character Map on your Windows machine, click on the Start button, then type “Character Map” in the search bar. You can also search for Run, start the app, then enter charmap. If you don’t see these options, simply use your Help commands and search for “character map,” then follow the links.

Once the Character Map utility is opened, the user can change the font in the upper bar. Once selected, the characters for that font will be displayed. Click on any of the small characters and it enlarges slightly. The alternate character code is shown in the lower right corner of the utility screen. As shown in the example, the copyright sign is Alt+0169.

If I need to access the same characters over and over during the year, I create a short “cheat sheet” list and keep it tacked up by my monitor. Once I use them a while, I simply remember them. For example, I am always using the copyright character on my sketches and photographs. Your list will probably look much like mine over a period of time.

Entering key codes to use the alternate character codes, simply put the text cursor where you want the character to be applied, then turn on the NumLock command on the upper left of your keyboard’s number pad. (I leave this on all the time.) Hold down the ALT key on your keyboard and enter the appropriate four numbers. In the case of the copyright sign, you hold down the Alt key and then type 0169 on the numbers pad. The alternate character should appear on screen.

Unfortunately, you cannot use the number keys on the top of the keyboard. It just doesn’t work. This presents a problem if you are using a notebook computer or some sort of compact keyboard. Whether you are using a notebook or a full desktop keyboard, you can still use the Character Map utility to get the alternate characters.

In Character Map, click a character, then click the Select button or simply double click on any of the desired characters. The character appears in the “characters to copy” box. You can choose more than one character if desired. When finished, click the Copy button.

Once you click the Copy button, the information is copied to the system’s clipboard (stored in RAM memory). That information will remain there until replaced with something else or until the system is shut down. Go back to your application. Click the text cursor where you want the alternate character, then paste the information there.

The Windows Paste command is located under the Edit pull-down menu, or you can simply hit the Control-V keys. In Windows, the standard shortcut for Copy is Control-C and the standard shortcut for Paste is Control-V.

Those steps work on most systems. Mac users will need to use the Command key instead of the Control key on the keyboard but overall, the steps are the same.

A font’s alternate characters often include cool ornaments, dingbats, alternate letters and ligatures. These are from Antique Shop, a font from Letterheadfonts.com.

The correct characters matter

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the old typewriter keyboard. With a limited number of keys available, we’ve had to work around some issues over the years. For example, the ‘ symbol and the “ symbol are located on a key together, beside the Enter key. These are the symbols for inches and feet. But because of the limited keys on the old typewriter keyboard, they have been used for years as the apostrophe and the open and closed quotes. The correct apostrophe keystroke is Alt-0146 (’). The correct open quotes keystroke is Alt-147 (“) and the correct close quotes keystroke is Alt-148 (”).

Use Word to save time

It can be a bit of a pain to have to stop and enter those characters every time they are used. Microsoft Word can be a great help if you want to take advantage of its power. Word will recognize the use of the feet and inches keystrokes and switch out the characters with the appropriate letter. “This is an example.” On an old typewriter, it would look like “This is an example.”

Microsoft Word will also recognize the use of open and close paragraph characters and will help with some special characters. Enter ( c ) without the spaces between and it instantly turns to ©. Enter (TM ) without the space between and the program will switch  it to ™. How about ®? Besides the alternate character help, a good word processing program can help with spelling, punctuation and even grammar.

So, to use the word processor to handle alternate characters, simply type your text in that program, select the text, and copy it to the clipboard (Control-C). Then click the mouse in your graphics program where you want it to go, using the Text tool. Paste it there (Control-V).

Using ligatures

Lastly, some fonts ship with additional special characters called ligatures. These are specially designed characters intended to be used together, such as fi, or ffi. Some fonts will also include special ornaments, swashes or elements not typically found in standard fonts. Many of those fonts will come with a sheet showing the alternate keystroke characters. Other times, the font vendor will also show the characters on their websites.

These special characters are placed into unused character spots on the character map, or replace seldom used alternate characters, but they work the same way. They will be available with some sort of Alt+(four numbers).

Taking the few extra seconds to replace generic characters with the correct ones can make your work look better and more professional. Likewise, failure to do so can place you and your work in the amateur league.

Here are some of the alternate characters I use often:

¢ (cent sign): Alt+0162

1⁄4 (fraction 1/4): Alt+0188

1⁄2 (fraction 1/2): Alt+0189

3⁄4 (fraction 3/4): Alt+0190

© (copyright symbol): Alt+0169

® (registered symbol): Alt+0174

™ (trademark): Alt+0153

– (en-dash): Alt+0150

— (em-dash): Alt+0151

° (degree Symbol): Alt+0176

’ (apostrophe): Alt+0146

“ (open quotes): Alt+0147

” (close quotes): Alt+0148

 

Mike and Darla Jackson operate Golden Era Studios in Jackson, Wyoming, and do a variety of sign-related projects. Mike’s website is www.goldenstudios.com. His email address is golden@goldenstudios.com. You can see more of Mike’s photos at www.tetonimages.com and www.goldenstudios.com.