Making use of the Character Viewer in OS X

The OS X Character Viewer offers far more than quick access to one or two special symbols.

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

The OS X Character Viewer is a system-wide text entry service that allows for quick access to numerous special characters from fonts in your system. While the use of keyboard modifier keys (Shift, Control, and so forth) allow for quick access to some common alternative characters, there are numerous Greek, currency, math, and emoticon symbols that can be accessed through the Character Viewer panel in OS X.

This panel can be accessed from the Edit menu in most applications, but can also be opened using keyboard shortcuts or the input menu, as outlined in this previous article.

The basics of the Character Viewer are fairly straightforward, where double-clicking or dragging a character will insert it into your document; however, there are some additional features that may be useful for accessing even more characters, looking up and locating characters, and organizing commonly used characters to maintain consistency in your documents.

Character Viewer categories
Use the gear menu to add more character categories to select from. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET
  1. Enable additional characters
    By default the character viewer will show you a number of common symbols and categories such as Emoji and Greek characters, but you can enable numerous other categories to get foreign script characters, musical notes, technical symbols, Braille, and other characters you might not know even exist on your Mac. To do this, at the top of the character viewer panel is a small gear menu which you can use to select "Customize List...," then check various categories to show.
  2. Find characters by name
    While you can browse through various symbols for use with your document, you can also use the Character Viewer to find symbols by name. If you know the name of a character you would like to use (such as the Greek "theta" symbol), start typing its name in the search box at the top left, and the character viewer will begin showing the available versions of it from the fonts that are installed on your system.
  3. Character search in OS X
    You can search for characters based on their unicode names. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET
  4. Preview font differences
    In addition to search results, the Character Viewer contains a Related Characters and Font Variations section under the preview at the right, which will show you similar symbols to the one you have entered. For example, if you enter a P character you will see related characters such as those with accent marks or encircled P symbols in the "Related Characters" section to the right, but if you scroll down in this section you will also see the P character from all fonts on your system in the Font Variations section.
  5. Look up a character name
    Have you ever wondered what a specific character might be called? For instance, the three dots that commonly trail an incomplete thought in text are called a "Horizontal Ellipsis," but without knowing this, people might just refer to it as "three dots" or something similar. If you come across such a character and wish to know what it is called, then you can do so by selecting it in your text body and dragging it to the Character Viewer window. This will perform a search for the character and reveal its name under the preview for it.
  6. Font variants and related symbols in Character Viewer
    Searching for a character will show related symbols and font variants. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET
  7. Organizing favorites
    In addition to looking up characters, you can store a number of those you frequently access in the Favorites section of the Character Viewer. To do so, simply drag a liked character to the Favorites section at the top-left of the window (denoted by a heart), where you should be able to access it. You can remove an item from your favorites by selecting "Favorites" and either dragging it out of the group or by selecting it and clicking the "Remove from Favorites" button to the right of the window.
  8. Locating recently-used characters
    Often even if just for consistency, you may find the need to use the same character again in your text; however, with so many options and variations of similar characters it may sometimes be difficult to choose the same one. For instance, there are several check mark characters available in the Character Viewer, but using only one type in your current document may be preferred. While you can add the character to your favorites list, another option is to go to the Recently Used characters list and access it from there. Do keep in mind that this list is dynamic and will change as you use the Character Viewer, but most of your recently-used characters will be available here.

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