How to create custom symbol substitutions in OS X

Emoticons and other symbols are popular, so here is how to set up OS X to quickly access common ones instead of having to open the Character Viewer window each time.

Topher Kessler MacFixIt Editor
Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.
Topher Kessler
3 min read

OS X has vast unicode font libraries that not only contain alternative alphanumeric characters and symbols, but also numerous fun and unique characters that may be useful when composing documents. There are several approaches to accessing odd characters in OS X, and the other day I covered some options for accessing these, including using Lion's new special characters menu and the keyboard viewer.

In addition to these options, the system has a character viewer that will allow you to browse through all the characters and font possibilities that OS X has to offer, and provide you with an option to insert them at the point of the text cursor for applications that support the characters.

In response to my original article on input options in OS X, MacFixIt reader "timhood" wondered about any possibilities for making the extensive character library more accessible, especially for common tasks. He writes,

I'd really like to figure out a faster way to get to some of the symbols Apple categories as "miscellaneous," such as (smiley face) (heart) (check mark), etc.

Currently, I have to open the Character Viewer, select the character and click the "Insert" button. I've made this slightly less cumbersome by enabling the Keyboard and Character viewers in the menu bar (Keyboard system preference). I size the character viewer as small as I can and leave it on-screen when I expect to need access to it frequently.

Is there a faster, easier way to access characters like these in Snow Leopard or Lion?

While OS X does not have an option such as a keyboard shortcut that will quickly launch the Character Viewer window and get to the desired character set, if you have a few of the characters that you wish to have quick access to, then you can take advantage of OS X's character substitution feature to set up easy access to the characters you want. Here is how to do this:

  1. Open the system's Character Viewer window.

  2. Open the "Language & Text" system preferences, and go to the Text tab.

  3. Ensure "Use symbol and text substitution" is checked and enabled.

  4. Click the plus button to add a new symbol substitution.

  5. In the first box (the "Replace" column) enter the text string you will be using to indicate the desired emoticon or other symbol.

  6. In the Character Viewer, select find the desired symbol and drag it to the second box (the "With" column) in the Language & Text system preferences.

Character substitution in OS X
Drag symbols from the character viewer to the text substitution list in order to use them.

Do this procedure for all of your desired symbols, and now when you enter the target text in a document it will be replaced with the symbol.

Tip: While this is handy to do, one problem may be if you at times wish to keep your text-based character instead of having the system substitute it. One approach is to undo a substitution by pressing Command-Z and the system will show your entered text as opposed to the substituted character, or you can set up your substitutions to be slightly different. For instance, the characters "<3" are="" commonly="" used="" to="" symbolize="" a="" heart,="" but="" instead="" of="" using="" those="" characters="" in="" the="" substitution,="" add="" an="" indicator="" before="" them="" such="" as="" "*<3",="" so="" whenever="" you="" type="" "<3"="" it="" will="" stay="" as-is,="" if="" put="" asterisk="" then="" system="" substitute="" with="" heart="" emoticon.<="" p="">

Questions? Comments? Have a fix? Post them below or e-mail us!
Be sure to check us out on Twitter and the CNET Mac forums.