back to article Never mind the Panic button – there's a key to Compose yourself

In these globally-connected-from-the-spare-bedroom times, sometimes we all need to deal with folks from far-off lands, whose names or addresses contain exotic symbols that Anglophones rarely encounter: from François to František or maybe even ffoulkes. There are lots of ways to do this, such as going to, …

  1. Nodrog

    Special Characters and Windows 11

    I only recently discovered that in Windows 11 a large selection of special characters are now readily available in the WinKey + V pop-up to click and paste, covering languages, maths, geometry, punctuation and more - much more than just the clipboard history I thought was there (I use ArsClip for clipboard history so had not bothered with the windows one).

    1. Sandtitz Silver badge

      Re: Special Characters and Windows 11

      Since Windows 3.1 there has been charmap.exe (Character Map) to find the odd non-latin characters. I'm sure it's still there in Win11.

      The DOS era ALT codes still work and can be used in Windows for ASCII characters. I still can remember a few codes as my first - crappy - PC keyboard didn't include <>| characters.

      (You can also input Unicode characters the same way if you know the Unicode number and the font includes it.)

      1. Nodrog

        Re: Special Characters and Windows 11

        Yes, character map is still there and ALT codes work if you have a numerical keypad but the new menu in the WinKey+V pop-up makes them obsolete.

    2. petef

      Re: Special Characters and Windows 11

      WinKey + V is for the clipboard history. WinKey + . (or ; period or semicolon) pops up a panel to select symbols, emoji and so forth.

      1. Nodrog

        Re: Special Characters and Windows 11

        It's the same panel with either shortcut, you select which section you want from the icons at the top.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Special Characters and Windows 11

      "a large selection of special characters are now readily available" But not from the keyboard... using your discovery.

      I want to input more than one char a second, thank you, so I avoid the thing with only 1 or 2 buttons in favor of the thing with 100 or so.

      If you really want to type with your mouse, you can use Google translate and its handwriting tool to draw them. Have fun.

    4. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: Special Characters and Windows 11

      On Windows 10, [Win]+[.] or [Win]+[;] will work

      On MacOS, [Ctrl]+[Cmd]+[Space] will work.

    5. TimMaher Silver badge

      Re: ArsClip

      Sounds a bit nasty to me.

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

        Re: ArsClip

        I suggest you avoid discussing with a medic how haemorrhoids can be treated.

  2. Ilsa Loving

    On Mac

    On a Mac, the standard keys don't repeat the way they do on PCs. Instead, if you hold the key down, and that character has variations, you just hold the key down. And Vôîłä, Åll thē vårįatįòñš you could want. Well, almost all. Some of the hungarian vowels are missing.

    1. Detective Emil

      Re: On Mac

      Mac OS has additionally had dead keys for accents forever — well since sometime in the 80's. See this Apple document for terse iformation on the new and the old methods, and this list for more key combinations than you'll ever need to know.

      1. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

        Re: On Mac

        I'm aware, but personally I find dead keys as annoying as a dead leg, and it also mucks up the ability to enter proper apostrophes and things.

        There are valid reasons I much prefer a compose key.

    2. Irony Deficient

      On a Mac, the standard keys don’t repeat the way they do on PCs.

      That depends upon the status of the ApplePressAndHoldEnabled user default. When it’s set to true (which is the default from Lion onwards), the diacritic menu appears when a standard key is pressed and held. When it’s set to false (which was the default through Snow Leopard), a standard key will repeat when pressed and held. I prefer the repeating to the diacritic menu, so I made that my default via the command

      defaults write -g ApplePressAndHoldEnabled -bool false

      I use a couple of different input sources and a Compose key equivalent for most of my extra-ASCII activities, in preference to the diacritic menu.

      your correspondent must confess that he’s never got [a Compose key on macOS] working himself.

      The less convenient approach that I’d taken was to use Karabiner and Seil (for recent versions of macOS, their functionality is combined in Karabiner-Elements) to make the Caps Lock key function as a Compose key, by assigning the KeyCode::PC_APPLICATION function to the Caps Lock key. The key binding file in macOS follows a format which is demonstrated in this commented sample. Once you’ve modified the key bindings to your liking, copy the modified DefaultKeyBinding.dict file to ~/Library/KeyBindings, and either reboot (if you’ve just installed and configured Karabiner-Elements) or log out, then log in (if Karabiner-Elements is already active and you’ve just updated your key binding file).

      1. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

        Re: On a Mac, the standard keys don’t repeat the way they do on PCs.

        Thanks for this.

        I have Karabiner Elements installed from a previous effort at getting this working, but I could never get a compose key to function using it.

        1. Irony Deficient

          Re: On a Mac, the standard keys don’t repeat the way they do on PCs.

          To assign another function to the Caps Lock key, Seil explicitly notes that System Preferences → Keyboard → Modifier Keys… → Caps Lock (⇪) Key should be set to “No Action” to reduce the delay of the Caps Lock key. I don’t know if Karabiner-Elements makes the same recommendation.

        2. Irony Deficient

          Re: On a Mac, the standard keys don’t repeat the way they do on PCs.

          Note that the second line of the sample DefaultKeyBinding.dict file contains an assignment that represents a character in the Unicode Private Use Area pressed with modifier keys; the corresponding function for the PUA character can be found (on my Mac) in /System/Library/Frameworks/AppKit.framework/Versions/C/Headers/NSEvent.h, which is NSF13FunctionKey, a F13 key. (The ^$ part of the second line represents Control and Shift modifiers respectively.) At some point, I’d changed that line in my modified DefaultKeyBinding.dict file to be

          "\UF716" = {

          which represents the PUA character U+F716 without any modifier keys, which corresponds to NSF19FunctionKey, an unmodified (virtual) F19 key, on my installed version of macOS. Accordingly, in Seil, I’d also set the keycode that the Caps Lock key sends to keycode 80, which corresponds to F19.

          If Karabiner-Elements still uses the same keycodes that Seil did, and the enumerated NS…FunctionKey values in the NSEvent.h file on your version of macOS are the same as mine, then perhaps this “F19” method might work better than the KeyCode::PC_APPLICATION method that was noted above.

    3. Andy Taylor

      Re: On Mac

      Use the option key; for example, option-e writes an acute accent. You then type the character you want to have that accent (usually e), so option-e e writes é.

      Simple and intuitive.

      1. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

        Re: On Mac

        I am aware of this and I use it sometimes.

        Simple, yes. Intuitive, no. Not even a little bit.

        Some examples to illustrate my point:

        • How do you distinguish between ø and œ?

        • U for umlaut depends on it being called that; what if I don't speak German?

        • What is the key combination for a Š or an ř?

        It's a very limited system and doesn't cover a wide enough range of languages, and for several of the combinations, you need to know what it's called in one particular language. That is not easy or intuitive: it requires memorisation, which mostly the Compose key does not.

    4. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: On Mac

      [Article author here; thought I'd wait for the furore to die down before wading in.]

      May I ask what keyboard layout & locale you have configured? Mine is UK English and I don't get ¾ of the symbols you use there. Which is a shame, because on my Mac I would like some of them.

  3. Paul Herber Silver badge

    I'll risk the inevitable down-voters and mention my own software for this:

    1. Lennart Sorensen

      Well I could see for very infrequent use, your click in a window method might be convenient, but compared to the convenience and flexibility of wincompose, it really doesn't seem like a match. And of course hard to compete with free and open source in the case of wincompose. But using a compose key certainly does have a higher learning curve for sure.

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        What I really don't understand is that my children, who attend Welsh-medium schools, haven't been taught how to use what passes for built-in compose functions in Windows. The bog standard "EN" keyboard seems not to have any, but if you set the "international" keyboard or - in this case - the "CY" keyboard you do get methods (different methods in each case!) to compose characters with accents - Welsh doesn't use vast numbers of them, but vowel-plus-circumflex (â ê î ô û ŵ ŷ) is very common, and occasional use is made of others such as ï and è. Easy access to these would surely make typing French, German and Spanish much easier too - these are all taught at the school.

        And <alt-gr> directly with keyboard numbers for ¹ ² ³ € ½ ¾ and with <shift-n> for ¡ ⅛ ¼ ⅜ ⅝ ⅞ ™ ± ° (on Linux, never seem to manage to make half of those work in Windows) is so much easier than having to pick up the mouse in the middle of typing, and more pleasing on the eye than the "constructed" alternatives:

        • 60° or 60o?
        • 1/2 or 1/2 or ½?
        but the computers at school often seem to be group-policied to plain ol' "EN" and even some of the teachers rely on the character picker! The children now know the <alt><0xyz> keypad trick, but it's difficult remembering all the codes.


      2. Paul Herber Silver badge

        Mine is a totally different paradigm. (There, I've used that word in anger for the first time in my life. That's another box ticked.)

    2. ShadowSystems

      At Paul...

      What, no Klingon? BAH! =-)p

  4. hitmouse

    International keyboard layout

    On Windows, I just use the international keyboard layout setting to compose these letters. It's been part of Windows for at least a quarter century. It's trivial to toggle between standard and international layout if you don't want the compose sequence active all the time.

    There's a zillion articles on the web about using it.

    1. E_Nigma

      Re: International keyboard layout

      You beat me to it! Choose the right keyboard layout and you get the feature from the article where, for instance, a ' followed by a c is typed as a ć - it's a standard feature, it's simple to use and has been around for eons!

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: International keyboard layout

        Yes, and I've been using it since something similar became a feature in RiscOS and I thought "I wonder if that works in Windows?", but as I wrote before I read your reply, it doesn't seem to be consistent. It's a different set of combinations and available characters for each non-EN keyboard layout. On top of that, Windows seems to revert to bog-standard EN on a whim, though that may be down to a badly thought-out school or work group policy I suppose.

        Seems to work much more consistently in the Linuxes I use!


        1. hitmouse

          Re: International keyboard layout

          The Windows keyboard layouts follow some older IBM conventions used on their kit around the world.

          Some of the differences are attributable to physically different keyboard layouts used in different EN locales. Some of them have the Alt GR keys, some have English pound or not. The international keyboard layout is mostly for the benefit of those using the minimalist US layout which has no dedicated compose keys (that would be "bloat").

          Another option is to enable Windows onscreen keyboard which allows you to do the press and hold for variant letters that you can do on phones, tablets etc.

        2. hitmouse

          Re: International keyboard layout

          I've never seen EN as a standard before. That does sound like local admin policy botched.

          It's important to get the keyboard locales right as that is what triggers the correct spell checker lexicon in desktop software. Chrome ignores desktop settings at install time (acknowledged by its developers) and forces users to navigate settings to get UK, Australian etc spellcheck. Mozilla is not much better.

        3. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

          Re: International keyboard layout

          If that is how you prefer to do it, that is of course perfectly fine.

          I know the system, I have tried it, and I strongly dislike it.

          The advantages of a compose key are that you never ever have to change layouts, you don't need to pre-configure layouts, you don't need to know any keystrokes for choosing layouts, and if you do know and have done all those things, you still need to know where the special keys are.

          I find the Compose key to be a lot easier and a lot less work. YMMV.

      2. vistisen

        Re: International keyboard layout

        What would be nice is to have physical keyboard where the letters on the keys are small displays that actually show the characters that pressing the key would use. Logitechs 'Scandinavian’ keyboard has two keys one marked ‘ØÖÆ’ and the other ‘ÆÖØ’ because Danish and Swedish layouts have these vowels in different orders in their standards.

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: International keyboard layout

          I'm sure I did see a keyboard once with a small dot matrix display under each keycap, but a quick search only throws up this Indiegogo project which doesn't appear to be shipping yet.


          1. RAMChYLD

            Re: International keyboard layout

            I remember that keyboard. It was a gimmick tho, costs a pretty penny which is probably why it didn't sell well.


          2. Norman Nescio Silver badge

            Re: International keyboard layout

            Also, a keyboard that was basically a customised touchscreen: Minebea COOL LEAF keyboard (do an Internet image search)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: International keyboard layout

      Not only on Windows! I'm also using it on Mint, and before on Solaris. I discovered it while living in China a decade ago, when I ironically could not manage to buy an AZERTY keyboard in the country manufacturing them. A friend taught me about the US International layout, and I've used it everywhere since, even when back in France: I realized that it's actually better than the regular French layout, as it allows to do accented upper case characters easily (eg É, Ç), which an AZERTY keyboard doesn't do, even though they're definitely part of the language...

      I'll look for the tools the article is pointing, as I still miss the Compose key in Windows.

    3. Lotaresco

      Re: International keyboard layout

      "On Windows, I just use the international keyboard layout"

      Sadly not available for English keyboards, just US keyboards.

      1. katrinab Silver badge

        Re: International keyboard layout

        For British English, you can use the UK Extended keyboard.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: International keyboard layout

          For British English, you can use pretty much any keyboard you like. Hell, I've toggled British English into front panel switches ...

          1. katrinab Silver badge
            Paris Hilton

            Re: International keyboard layout

            I mean if you want [Shift]+[3] to produce a £ symbol

  5. Peter Prof Fox

    A much better method is single-key cycling

    Because you tend to use a few 'accent' or 'adapted' characters frequently, even to chess symbols, it's easy to get used to pressing the base character and then (say) F8 a number of times. 2 then F8 will give you squared. e then F8 gives é, pressing F8 again gives ê and again gives è and so on. You might want these sets in combination. The magic thing is that if you get it wrong then put the cursor on the incorrect character and cycle, through the base character if necessary, to the one you want.

    The learning curve is short and simple. The sequence Base - Accent - Accent say will give you your frequently used character decoration or symbol. For a UK keyboard £[F8] gives a euro. Automatic after a couple of times if you need euros. £▶€▶£, $▶¢▶$, c▶©▶c (Those arrows were ">-F8.)

    It's far more complicated to describe than use. Free of course.

    (Sadly, I don't know how to make a Linux keyboard driver, but the innards of the system are incredibly simple.)

    1. Martin an gof Silver badge

      Re: A much better method is single-key cycling

      But £ is <shift>-3, $ is <shift>-4, € is <alt-gr>-4, ¢ is <alt-gr>-c and © is <alt-gr>-C. I'd contend those are even easier to remember, and certainly quicker to type :-)


      1. hitmouse

        Re: A much better method is single-key cycling

        That only works for UK keyboards. Other parts of the English-speaking world use the US keyboard.

        You could remap the keyboard in software, but it's confusing if the keypad labels aren't updated too.

        1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

          Re: A much better method is single-key cycling

          That was a problem I had with a UK linux keyboard living in Germany: I needed the umlauts but didn't want a DE layout. The compose method is 'altgr-shift-2 letter' for äöü and 'altgr-s' for ß which is what I use now but the extra (and to me unnecessary) keystroke annoys me...

          Some kind soul on the Mint forum indicated a way to re-map the keyboard so that altgr-vowel worked, which was really nice, but it only ever worked on one machine, for some reason I never discovered.

          At least duolingo doesn't keep hassling me äböüt mïssïng ümläüts any more, but the compose key does slow down touch typing.

          1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

            Re: A much better method is single-key cycling

            The usual Linux way of getting umlauts is AltGr-[-<character> like this äöü.

            Done on a Chromebook, as it happens, but the principal's the same and is why my DE keyboard went to charity.

            1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

              Re: A much better method is single-key cycling

              üöä - yes, that works here too. But it's still one more key than I'd like to press - though the combination is a little easier to reach than the AltGr-"--<char> which needs the shift key too. Thanks.

              1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

                Re: A much better method is single-key cycling

                I tried the AltGr-shift-2 letter method (which is more memorable than AltGr-[) but under Xubuntu I get one-eighth as soon as I hit the "2" and on ChromeOS I get one-half.

                1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

                  Re: A much better method is single-key cycling

                  Curious: I'm on Mint 20.2 Cinnamon, UK keyboard, so shift 2 is ' " '. Perhaps your double-quote is elsewhere?

                  Both AltGr-[ and AltGr-shift-2 gives me a " with a dot under it which mutates into the world of umlauts when I hit a vowel.

  6. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. chivo243 Silver badge

    Yes! Both!

    QWERTY and AZERTY, having just moved to France, I am faced with both! My keyboard at work was complete with Panic, Panic Over and Eject! I left a couple with a colleague as a going away gift!

    Coat because I moved on...

    1. Zippy´s Sausage Factory

      Re: Yes! Both!

      Well here in Portugal I see vintage typewriters for sale with the "tecladio nacional" layout - HCESAR! (to be precise, the first line was _ HCESAROPZ, the second ?QTDINULMX and the third YÇJBFVGKW)

      Some day, I intend to buy a cheap keyboard for 10€, swap all the keycaps around, and then write a keyboard driver for it and see how it goes. Yes, I know it feels masochistic - hence the icon.

    2. Medieval Research Council

      Re: Yes! Both!

      Try typing in English on a Danish keyboard to a computer that thinks there is a Swedish one there.

      Another wrinkle in the fabric of time was a Swedish ISP who tried to be helpful by changing some characters of files emailed from and to UK. The effect on attached keyfiles took days to track down because we always got back what we had sent and eventually we had to arrange to ftp as 'binary'.

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: Yes! Both!

        Once had an "artwork" built at the museum where the "artist" had connected 72 (or so - I really can't remember, but it was a lot) of those moving message displays to a computer and screwed them all to a 15ft high wall.

        The computer was set to start at the Wikipedia article for "industrial revolution" and put the title of that article on each display. After a pause, it would follow a random link in the article, and put the title of that on display #1, follow another random link for #2 and so on. It would follow 72 links, then go back to the page for display #1 and choose a random link to follow from /that/ page.

        There were two major technical problems with this. Firstly, although the displays would talk RS485 very nicely, the wiring was all "upside down" so that instead of a "backbone and drop" layout, someone had wired up (effectively) a star, so all the timings were messed up and data meant for one display would end up partly missing, or mucking up the data intended for another display. I spent hours with a soldering iron sorting that one out, after I'd sorted out the mess he'd made of the mains wiring, only to discover that the random characters and apparent "freezes" weren't all down to dodgy serial links.

        The technical problem relevant here is that the displays had a limited character set, so rather than sending (to choose a random example), "Sächsische Maschinenfabrik" to the display, it would convert the ä to an a using a hellishly complex (and mostly unnecessary*) regex. Fair enough, but what the eejit forgot to do was to keep the original page title, and he would put the munged version back into the scraper in order to find the next link. In many cases (though not the example I gave :-) this would then totally fail to come up with a page at all, and the thing would put random characters on the display, which would then take no further (useful) part in proceedings.

        For some reason, even though I pointed this out to him very early on, he refused to revisit this part of the code and for the three months we had the thing on display it needed rebooting three or four times a day, just to avoid 72 displays filled with random characters.


        *unnecessary because the displays did have a reasonable selection of accented characters, but also (I later discovered) they had their own conversions for characters they didn't have, so generally speaking (and assuming a generally Western European alphabet) he could have sent the original page title and let the displays themselves worry about what to show.

        1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

          Re: Yes! Both!

          My username with the BBC website has an ü in it which the BBC can only, it seems, display as Å.

          1. Martin an gof Silver badge

            Re: Yes! Both!

            I wanted to register for iPlayer, but it wouldn't accept the TLD of my email address - it flat refused ".cymru" and I had to register with an alternative.

            Nothing to do with dodgy characters of course, and not (by a long shot) unique to the BBC.


    3. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      Re: Yes! Both!

      A friend of mine who teaches in a European school says that they use Luxembourg keyboards, because they have French and German accented characters built it.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great for the near-Latin characters, which is much (most?) of the world. Hard to use with Thai. For that a soft keyboard is the only way, and once you have that adding the other languages is the way to go rather than the compose key. สวัสดีปีใหม่.

    1. jgarbo


      Thai's easy if you switch to Thai keyboard software (easy in Linux), hardware might need stickers on foreign keyboards.

      Typing is HELL - 46 consonants, ~125 vowels! And of course "nospacebetweenthewords". My wife does my Thai typing when I need to insert Thai in my reports.

      Name of our capital :


      "Bangkok" is unheard of among Thais, strictly tourist term .

  9. Steve Graham

    I use Linux just with Openbox, not any of the desktop environments, which means that I have to set my Xorg keyboard with a call to setxkbmap in my .xinitrc file. I've created my own layout file, (which lives in /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/). Unfortunately, it's a mix of compose sequences using AltGr as the compose key, and shift combinations using AltGr as a special shift. It's all a bit of a mess.

    I read somewhere that only English and Hawaiian use the Latin alphabet without accents (on native words). Fortunately, I mostly type in one of those two.

    1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      I read somewhere that only English and Hawaiian use the Latin alphabet without accents (on native words).

      That's a slightly naïve belief. Still, I hope you had a joyful Noël. Chloë and Zoë send their regards, and hope you have had time to read some work by the Brontë sisters. They were very learnèd.

      (Oh and by the way, the first use of "naïve" in English recorded by the OED is from 1614, so the "recent borrowing" argument really doesn't work. Lots of -èd in the King James Bible, and that practically defines "native English".)

  10. david 12 Silver badge

    IBM 3270 series Green Screen terminals.

    The distinction between US and non-US IBM keyboards goes back at least to the 1970's.

    The IBM 3270 series had a Compose Key in international markets, but did not in the USA.

  11. Jez B

    UK Extended?

    What about the UK Extended keyboard layout?

    éáíóú = Alt Gr + aeiou

    ñ = Alt Gr + #, n

    è = Alt Gr, `, e

    ë = Alt Gr + 2, e

    ç = Alt Gr + c

    Has done me well for many years.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Now that was a good keyboard.

  13. vistisen

    Even slightly ‘odd' keyboards like the Scandinavian ones that have extra vowels can lead to problems with using keyboards controls while playing games. AS these extra vowels lie towards the right-hand edge of the keyboard where often righthand characters are used for actions. If you are lucky it just means player twister with the finger of your right hand. But I have at least one train sim game that where increase and decrease brakes keys both increase brakes!

  14. -tim

    Enhanced layout

    The enhanced layout was proposed by Scandinavian governments to reduce the premium they paid for localized keyboards. Or at least that was the story I was told about why the VT100 and VT220 had different keyboard layouts.

  15. MacroRodent

    Composing too much

    > If only IBM had taken that too, the world might never have needed the dozens of national layouts we have now…

    Yes, we would. For example, writing Finnish gets tiresome fast if you have to hit multiple keys to get ä or ö. We have common words like "täällä" (= "here"). Try writing that with a compose key!

  16. AndrueC Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    And that first image shows why the WordStar(TM) keys made more sense with Ctrl being alongside them.

  17. tapanit

    An amusing detail: Current official standard Finnish keyboard layout (SFS 5966) allows typing pretty much all Latin-based characters, up to and including Vietnamese double-accented ones like ấ, ứ &c - but Finnish Windows doesn't use it, instead it uses Swedish layout for Finnish as well. (They used to be the same until Finland decided to add the extra accented characters.) Moreover it's all but impossible to buy physical keyboards with the extra characters. In Linux they have of course worked since forever.

  18. ICL1900-G3

    Thank you so much

    I've been using Linux since 2006 and I never knew that. Silly old me, that is SO useful. Thank you again.

    1. ICL1900-G3

      Re: Thank you so much

      Blimey! El Reg gets ever edgier. Never been downvoted for saying 'thank you' before. A genuinely useful tip, I often write in German but prefer the UK keyboard layout. Whichever snowflake found my post offensive... see if I care.

  19. Unbelievable!

    this WINCOMPOSE is detected as malware - level CRITICAL


  20. jake Silver badge

    A trifle late, perhaps ...

    ... but both 1984's Model M and 1983's LK201 were inspired by Key Tronic Corporation's original 101/102 key keyboard in 1982. I seriously doubt the IBM engineers even knew of the LK201's existence by the time the layout for the M was set.

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