Touch-Typing Unicode: How and Why

If you’re a scientist, engineer, or mathematician, you probably frequently type technical things on a computer. If you haven’t already, you should definitely learn to touch-type, like everybody should, but then after that there’s another step that you should do for the same reason: learn to touch-type critical characters that are not on your standard keyboard—characters like π μ Δ ± × ≈ β φ ° ∇ ∞ ∫ ≲ etc. etc.

After you get good at this, you’ll be able to type those characters, or any others you like, into virtually any program where you can type normal text—web browsers, Word, Powerpoint, Notepad, programming languages, whatever—and you’ll be able to do it fast enough that you don’t lose your train of thought. Equally importantly, if you find it easy to type the characters, then you actually will type them, instead of their harder-to-read cousins (“pi”, “<~”, “integral of”, etc.), and whoever is reading your writing will be that much likelier to understand it. (Don’t forget, the person reading your writing is most often yourself!)

Also, in many programming languages including Python, you can use Greek letters for variable names, so you can write and run code like θ = π/4. I highly recommend doing this whenever a Greek variable seems to be called for. I find that it can make science calculations much easier to read, understand, and debug.

How to do it

Step 1: Set up a Compose Key on your computer

  • Windows: Install WinCompose from this link. (Does not need admin access.)
  • Linux: Activate the compose key (if it's not already activated by default). If you're not sure, search on the web for "compose key ubuntu" or similar.
  • Mac: There is no great Compose key solution for Mac; you're probably best off just using unicode input (e.g. to input unicode 3BC, type Ctrl-Cmd-Space, release, then type u+3bc, then down arrow, then enter). Well, there are two compose key options, but they're a bit hard to install and customize, and you'll need to add a lot of compose key shortcuts yourself ... but if you're interested, see custom keyboard layout method or keybindings method, I'm not sure which is better. (More compose key discussion: here, here.)

Step 2 (optional): Print out my handy Compose key cheat sheet—PDF, editable version—and tape it to the wall near your computer. (For Mac users stuck using unicode input, use this version: PDF, editable.)

This is tailored towards the particular symbols that I personally use, but you can make your own. The compose key shortcut list is specifically for WinCompose, but I think they're mostly the same with Linux or Mac compose keys. (I haven't checked.) (One exception: WinCompose uses "[compose key] u" for arbitrary unicode input; on Linux, it's "Ctrl-Shift-u" instead, and see above for Mac.) (Note: It's also possible to add your own custom compose-key shortcuts if ones you need are missing.)

Step 3: Start typing!

Let’s say I want to type the character μ. I look up the shortcut on the cheat sheet, and see that it’s “[compose key] * m”. So if the compose key is Right-Alt (for example), I would press and release Right-Alt, then *, then m. And μ appears!

Step 4: If you use a symbol very frequently, you’ll memorize its shortcut without even trying!



Q: Will these characters show up properly on other people’s computers?

A: In my experience, yes. This was not true 10 years ago but things have gotten much better.

Q: I use LaTeX / Mathematica / Julia / (whatever) which has its own special convenient way to input special characters. Why should I bother with a compose key?

A: The Compose key will let you type technical things into any application—word processors, spreadsheets, text editors, email messages, etc. etc.

Please email me any feedback.