Your Keyboard is Hiding Something From You

Your keyboard is hiding a secret from you. Those uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols silkscreened on the keycaps? They aren’t the whole story. Every one of them has at least two other things they can do. Special things happen when you type them in special combinations, strange arcane markings will appear if you do the right thing.

If you take the very small amount of time to learn to unlock the hidden keys, you will increase your personal capacity and sew one more merit badge into your empowered user sash.

What’s My Keyboard Hiding That’s So Important?

When you work with people from diverse backgrounds, you’re bound to know someone whose names contain characters off the beaten keyboard. Accents(´) and gravs(`), umlauts(¨) and cedillas(ç). It’s a small effort towards inclusivity to use the proper characters to write people’s names, but how the h*ck do you make them.

Inclusivity is enough reason, but there’s also professionalism. Little touches like proper typesetting make your written communications stand out. You have an attention to detail and that comes through on the page (or screen).

I’m not interested in cataloguing every accent and symbol in a neat little table for you. Honestly you’ll forget. I sure as hell would forget. Instead, this post will teach you how to figure out what you need on your own.

Diacritics aka Accent Marks

Diacritics are signs/marks written above or under a letter to change its pronunciation. Pokémon, façade, Jalapeño and Motörhead all contain diacrits. An accent acute, a cedilla, a tilde, and an umlaut respectively.

English doesn’t use any diacritics. If anyone reading this is a linguist please let me know why that is.

Typing diacritical characters is simple but a little different from what you’re used to. Let’s type an accent acute (é) in Pokémon.

  1. Hold Option (⌥) and press the ‘E’ key once
  2. Release Option (⌥)
  3. Press the ‘E’ key again

Simple as pie.

You can put accent acute marks on any vowel in this way. All diacritics work this way, holding down a modifier, typing a letter, and then typing a letter again.

But how do you know which keys to press? Well I don’t believe in wasting time in creating some exhaustive table, I’d rather teach you to fish.

Learning More with the Keyboard Viewer

Summon up your keyboard viewer. Go to System Preferences > Keyboard and check the “Show Keyboard, Emoji, & Symbol Viewers in menu bar” option. Then go to your menu bar and click on the new icon that’s appear there and choose “Show Keyboard Viewer”.

Keyboard System Preferences "Show Keyboard, Emojic, and Symbols Viewer in menu bar"

System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard


Showing the keyboard viewer menubar item

Your menu bar now has a “Show Keyboard Viewer” option

The keyboard viewer is exactly what it sound’s like. It floats a virtual keyboard on your screen. Click keys with your mouse and they type and for our purposes, it mimics what you type.

Keyboard Viewer hovering over other work

Keyboard viewer always stays on top

If you hold down the Option (⌥) key, you’ll see certain keys highlighted in orange. These are your diacritic modifiers. If you want to create a tilde to properly address a señor, then the keyboard viewer will tell you what key to press (N obviously).

gif of keyboard viewer typing an ñ

Hold down option (⌥) and hit “N”. Release ⌥ and hit “N” again.

Alternate Method – Hold a Key

Okay now that you learned the hard, cool way you can learn the boring easy way.

Hold down "C" to see other options

Holding down keys will give you accent options

On MacOS and iOS, you can hold down a key to reveal diacritic options. So no I guess you don’t need to know to use Option + C to make the cedilla in façade.

See Apple’s official documentation here.


In playing around with the keyboard viewer, you probably noticed that there are a number of symbols that don’t appear on the number row.

Holding option gives you access to such symbols as the “Pounds Sterling” sign as in, “I say, good chap, I shall donate £100 to your Patreon, post haste!” as well as some common Greek letters and other math symbols.

Keyboard view of accents available with option key

Option will place accents and diacritics like ` ´ ¨ ˆ ˜

Hold down Option (⌥) and Shift (⇧) to get even more symbols and special characters.

Keyboard view of symbols revealed by Option + Shift

Hold multiple modifiers to see useful symbols

Okay, no you’re not going to be making an Apple Æ symbol much because no one in the world knows what that’s for, but I make em dashes (—) all the time and Euro (€) and Plus or Minus (±) comes up now and then. It’s even got the degree sigh, as in “It’s 100° out and I’m sweating”.


You now have another tool in your toolkit. What once might have been perplexing is now easy and your skills and confidence have increased. Do you need material validation? OK, having proper symbols will always make your communications look more polished.

Your keyboard hides all sorts of goodies from you. As it turns out what you thought was at most a two trick pony actually is a four or five trick pony.

What else happens when you hold down modifiers? Do they give you new menu options in your favorite apps? Does it change the way your cursor highlights text? Maybe. Why don’t you check and see? Craft yourself another tool in your Empowered User toolkit.

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