Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Articles → Linux Compose Key

I often need to type characters that aren’t on the keyboard, like ½ ÷ © ¥ or ¢.

On Mac, they’re done with the [option] key, but not always intuitive. For example: © is [option]-G and £ is [option]-3. I never did memorize all of these combinations, but there’s a nice cheat sheet of Mac accent codes, here.

On Windows, it’s horrible. You need a separate numeric keypad on your keyboard, then you use the [Alt] key plus a 4-digit unicode number to create the character. For example: © is [Alt]-0169 and £ is [Alt]-0163. See Windows alt codes, here.

On Linux, though, they have the most brilliant intuitive way of doing this:

You pick a key on your keyboard you don’t use much, like [Insert], [CapsLock], or [menu], and make it the “compose key”.

Then to make any character, you just hit the compose key, then type the two obvious keys that, when combined, make up the character.

For example:

It’s like drawing with your keyboard!

Best of all: I never need to read a manual. Drawing characters like this is so intuitive that my first guess is always correct. That’s the core of usability, right?

See the Wikipedia page for more info.

(Windows people, don’t despair. There’s a free tool called AllChars that will let your Windows PC have this cool compose key function. Try it! It’s fun!) (Photo Ⓒ by Jim Sher.)