04 July 2007

Typing accents on a U.S. keyboard

In a comment, Claude asked the question: How do you type accented characters on a U.S. keyboard?

With computers, everything is possible, no? And it's not too hard, once you get used to it. First of all, I use the U.S.-International keyboard layout in Windows. It gives you much easier ways to type accented characters than the standard U.S. keyboard layout does.

With the standard U.S. layout, you have to press the ALT key and type a number code on the numeric keypad on the right side of the keyboard to get accented characters. For example, ALT+0233 on the numeric keypad produces é. ALT+0244 produces ô. And so on. Make sure NumLock is turned on to get this to work.

Thankfully, in Window you can choose the software keyboard layout you want the keys on your hardware keyboard to map to. You install keyboard layouts for different countries and languages using the Regional and Language Options control panel. You can do the same thing on a Mac, but I couldn't tell you the details of how.

At that point, it doesn't matter what letter or symbols appear on the keys on your actual keyboard. The software is in charge. For example, on my new British keyboard the symbol that appears above the 2 on the top row of keys is the double quote, ". But when I type Shift+2 using the U.S.-International layout, I see the @ characters on the screen. It's a little confusing, but it's a small price to pay for having the A, Q, W, Z, and M keys in "the right place" — that is, where I expect them as an American-trained typist, and not where they are positioned on a French keyboard.

For accented characters, the U.S.-International keyboard is set up so that if you type ' and then immediately press E, you see é on the screen. If you press ` and then A, you see à, for example. The same is true with ^, so you can easily type ^ and then O and see ô.

This works with capital letters too: É or Î, for example. The single quote character followed by unshifted or shifted C gives you ç or Ç. And the double quote followed by a vowel gives you the character you need for Citroën, which in French is called a tréma and in English and German is an umlaut.

The only problem you have is in typing a combinations like l'amour or qu'elle in French using this keyboard layout. If you aren't careful, you end up with lámour or quélle on the screen. The way you have to do it is to touch the space bar after the single quote in order to make the quote mark appear on the screen as a separate character. So qu'elle is typed as Q U ' [spacebar] E L L E and l'amour is L ' [spacebar] A etc.

The U.S.-International keyboard layout
Thanks to Wikipedia for the image

I just discovered that the U.S.-International keyboard provides for some accented characters in even easier ways. On this keyboard layout the ALT key on the right side of the spacebar is actually an ALT GR key — I think the GR stands for graphical characters.

If you hold down ALT GR and then press E, you get é. Holding down ALT GR and Shift as you press E gives you É. This works for some other standard accented characters as well. ALT GR + A produces an á. Of course that character doesn't exist in French, but it does in other languages.

The accented characters commonly used in French are:

à â - é è ê ë - î ï - ô - ù û - ç Ç

Does entering accented characters sound complicated? Like many other things, it's not complicated once you learn how to do it.

For Betty who lives in France (where she has three blogs) and is going to spend the summer in the U.S.: could you take a French keyboard with you and install then the French keyboard layout in Windows on your family's PC? Even if you don't actually take a keyboard with you, you can install the French keyboard layout and then treat the U.S. keyboard as if it were a French one, as longa s you are somebody who types without looking at the keys...


  1. I'll have to try the accent/letter combination when I am abroad...
    It might not be all that easy on Internet Café computers, but who knows? It seems that things became easier than they used to be! Thanks for the reply, Ken!

  2. I prefer the US Standard keyboard layout (its the best for my job as a unix sys adm) and have this on my laptop.

    However, I would like to substitute the right hand Alt key to Alt-Gr so that I can access the accented keys.
    Does anyone know how to do this?


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