Tech Insights for Educators #1: Special typographic characters and alt codes

This is the first in a new series of Technology Insights for Educators which I will use as supplemental materials for my students in EME 2040: Introduction to Technology for Educators at University of Central Florida, which may also be of general interest. As I enter my second year of the Education Ph.D., Instructional Design and Technology program, I am becoming a Graduate Teaching Associate and will be teaching two mixed mode sections of EME 2040 (Monday 10:30 A.M. – 1:30 P.M. and Wednesday 1:30 – 4:20 P.M.) as Instructor of Record in Fall 2017. At a later time, I will make a landing or index page for these insights.

When preparing documents, et cetera, there are many typographic characters that are not available on a standard keyboard, and yet are supported by Unicode and can be used in most applications (e.g., Microsoft Office).

On Microsoft Windows, if a numeric keypad is available (found on the right side of the keyboard), such characters can be directly typed with alt codes. With the Num Lock key enabled, one should depress one of the Alt keys, and while doing so, type a sequence of numbers on the numeric keypad, and then release Alt. Then, the special character will appear. I found a list of many alt codes in this blog post by “Techno World 007.” Here are some of the most important ones:

Symbol Alt Code Description
Alt + 0149 Bullet point
Alt + 0150 En dash
Alt + 0151 Em dash
¢ Alt + 0162 Cent sign
° Alt + 0176 Degree symbol
× Alt + 0215 Multiplication sign
÷ Alt + 0247 Division sign
* Alt + 8242 Prime symbol
* Alt + 8243 Double prime symbol

* Alt code works in Microsoft Office, but not most other programs.

If a numeric keypad is unavailable (e.g., on a laptop), or you are in a non-Windows environment, there are other options. In Microsoft Word, there is the “symbol” section. Another option is simply copying-and-pasting the symbol into the target document. In Microsoft Word, this should be done with the “keep text only” paste option to prevent inheriting conflicting font size or formatting from the source.

What you see in many academic manuscripts, books, and other materials is frequently incorrect. Using a hyphen between a number range (e.g., 10-99) is not correct—an en dash should be used (e.g., 10–99). When an author speaks of a two-by-two interaction, calling it a 2*2 or 2x2 is typographically incorrect. Instead, the multiplication sign should be used (i.e., 2×2). When talking about height or distance, one should use the prime and double-prime symbols, rather than the single and double-quote symbols, respectively (e.g., not 5’10”, but rather, 5′10″).

In some cases, Microsoft Word will help you. For example, if you type two hyphens between words, it automatically converts the two hyphens to an em dash (—).

Personally, I am so used to using some of the symbols that I have memorized the alt codes for an en dash, an em dash, the cent sign, and the multiplication sign (–, —, ¢, ×). This way, when I am typing in an online discussion, et cetera, and must employ these symbols to be typographically correct, there is no need for me to copy-and-paste from an external source or consult a character map.

You can impress or annoy your colleagues with your knowledge of typography. Surprisingly, I have found that knowledge of the en dash, in particular, is sparse. Most people, including full professors, incorrectly use hyphens where en dashes are required. I suppose many academic journals correctly employ en dashes only because the editors make corrections to the authors’ manuscripts.

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