Symbolism (Office 12 Coolness, Part 5)

In every phase of my life in which I’ve been required to create documents, a
different set of symbols has been important to me.

For instance, in high school, I studied Spanish, which meant figuring out how to
type ñ and ¿.  In college, as I repeatedly flirted with
flunking German, I inserted a lot more of ä, ß, and ö.  And now that I work
at Microsoft, my symbols of choice are © and ®.

That’s one of the reasons I appreciate the Symbol gallery on the Insert tab
of Word 12.  When I want a symbol, I just pop open the gallery and choose
the one I want. 

And why is the one I want in there?  Because the gallery keeps track of
the twenty most recently inserted symbols and offers one-click access to those. 
As a result, I hardly ever have to visit the Symbols dialog box in Word.

Just another lightweight timesaver in Office 12 that keeps my focus on my
document instead of on the user interface.

Edited: Somehow the symbols got lost in the automatic publishing…

P.S. Is ß really going away in common practice?  I
always felt that the Eszett was an important part of what makes written German

Comments (45)

  1. Szajd says:

    Where are those characters you’re talking about in paragraph 2? They disappeared upon publishing?

  2. Thommy says:

    The Eszett will not go away, it is just substituted in several cases with a ss.

  3. John Topley says:

    I think the international characters aren’t displaying because the HTML behind this blog doesn’t contain any character encoding directives…

  4. Vincent says:

    I think this is a great feature. I had an algorithm analysis work to do and let me tell you that it is really painful to get this Symbol interface which is very far away, to add Omega, Alpha and Teta. So painful that I just write (Ome) and then do a global replacement.

  5. mschaef says:

    Back in college, I took Spanish. My approach to the accent problem in Word (2.0, IIRC) was to define a macro that would look at the character immediately preceding the caret and change it to the appropriate accented character. Spanish made this easy since there’s only one type of accent for each letter that might be accented.

    "I think this is a great feature. I had an algorithm analysis work to do and let me tell you that it is really painful to get this Symbol interface which is very far away, to add Omega, Alpha and Teta. So painful that I just write (Ome) and then do a global replacement. "

    This is why some people prefer markup based systems like TeX. To enter Omega, you just type $omega$ and it renders correctly in the final document. It also works for equations.

    Word’s point and click is good in that it’s easy to discover if you don’t know how to use it, but once you have to start using it all the time it starts to fall short.

  6. mschaef says:

    " My approach to the accent problem…was to define a macro"

    I forgot to mention that I bound the macro to a key.

  7. Jensen, congratulations on another interesting article. What a shame that the blog software ate your German and Spanish special characters.

    I just recall that Word 2003 already has a list of recent used symbols. It struck me as funny that it’s already filled in the first time you use Word.

    At that time I noted that the symbols chosen (for me) were reasonable. It’s good to see that the good idea (the symbols list) is preserved, and further developed in a more useful direction.

    I really like the idea to make the symbols immediately available, and from your previous postings, I can see that it’s a general principle in the new Office 12 interface.

    For instance, this is the same type of immediate feedback as the "instant preview" (that Jacob Nielsen also recently noted)

    Other example I enjoyed are the Excel sum and average in the status bar.

  8. Elmar Schraml says:

    About the eszett in German:

    There has been a controversial orthography reform which mandates that the eszett gets replaced by a double s if it’s following a short vowel.

    But in all other cases, it’s still there.

    Btw, can anybody think of a good reason to have an eszett in the first place? For a real orthography reform, I would have preferred to get rid of the eszett alltogether.

  9. anon says:

    What if you want to use 21 different symbols, in the same order all the time? That will be interesting… cache trashing at it’s best :)

  10. James Schend says:

    In MacOS, you can type pretty much all of that from the keyboard using the Option key. The problem is that Apple got rid of the KeyCaps program, and now it’s really hard to find which character you’re looking for… what a pain.

    Not really related to the subject at hand, though.

    Could you go back and edit all those characters back in? I’m curious as to what’s supposed to fill in the blanks.

  11. Arthur Blotch says:


    Please try very hard to understand this: Your text is broken. The characters with diacriticals are not visible in IE6 on Windows, nor in Firefox. I do view source, and there’s nothing there. Nothing.

    For non-ASCII charcters in HTML, you must use what they call "character entities". Here’s a canonical list; even Netscape 4 supports all the really useful ones, and modern browsers support them all:

    1) You must include the semicolon at the end of the entity. It is required. IE has a bug where it tries to guess, but obviously there are cases when it can’t. I don’t care about IE’s bugs anyway; use the semicolon. Will your HTML be around for longer than six months? Use the semicolon. IE7 is fixing a lot of bugs. They may fix that one. Just use the semicolon.

    2) Don’t ever use 8-bit ASCII in any text which may have to be compatible with software other than what you’re editing it with. HTML is not Word. It isn’t. Trust me on this. Word is not a text editor. It replaces a lot of characters with 8-bit ASCII garbage. Don’t use it to compose HTML. It can’t do that. That’s like using a hammer to drive a screw. Text you copy/paste out of Word is almost invariably going to contain characters which are illegal in HTML. Word is a very old program which operates on the assumption that its own file format and display capabilities are the entire universe. It thinks the editor and the viewer are always the same program. The Web isn’t like that at all.

    8-bit ASCII garbage from Word will very often show up in people’s browsers as question marks, boxes, little black diamonds, or whatever. Text edited on Macs often displays brokenly on Windows, and vice versa. Yeah, I know you don’t care. But you should.

  12. Rick Osborne says:

    I am curious as to how well O12 will work over Remote Desktop/Terminal Services. I do quite a bit of work over RDP, much of which is over slow data lines, and it drives me up the wall to watch RDP freeze up for 10 seconds become a splash screen did an alpha-fade or something like that. (Um, every Adobe product I’ve used comes to mind.)

    The O12 updates look pretty slick, but the Ribbon looks rather RDP-hostile. Is testing being done to look into tuning it down for RDP?

  13. Joe says:

    ^^ relax Art. No need to be a dick about it. It looks like an innocent mistake on Jensen’s part….

  14. jensenh says:

    The problem didn’t appear to have anything to do with encoding or anything else, actually.

    The web service used to automatically post articles caused the symbols to get lost along the way.

    I fixed them by hand and things look OK now.

    Sorry for the mess up!

  15. Bret Victor says:


    Hunting through a gallery of recent symbols is better than a gallery of all symbols, but most of the gallery will still be irrelevant to what the user wants to type at that moment. Choosing is symbol is very different than choosing, say, a style sheet. With the latter, I’m window shopping and want to see an assortment, but with symbols, I already know -exactly- what I want.

    You could let the user type a keyboard character, and winnow the gallery to show characters that look sort of like that character. For example, if I want to insert "not equals", I could type "=". The gallery would then show all similar symbols: not equals, <=, >=, triple =, etc. If I want to insert "copyright", I could type "c", and the gallery would show "copyright", "cents", "cedilla", and anything else that sort of looks like a "c".

    Ten years ago, I created a utility for this on the Apple IIgs, and it was very well-received:

    I’ve since been disappointed that the idea hasn’t found its way into more mainstream systems.

  16. Christian says:

    Well that is basically the same as in all the other Offices: They also remember the last symbols.

    If a symbol is NOT in that list it is always very hard to find them (mathematicall symbols).

    BTW: There is one thing with office that is as BAD as everything else is great: Formulars and scientific texts.

    Can’t MS get on par with TeX or LaTeX?? Latex is a pain to use, but there’s no other choice to get good formulas in text.

    Even the pro-version of MathType is a joke.

    Have a look at "Maple" and include some basic layout functionality like that in Office!

    Once a friend of mine had a very bad experience: She had to use PowerPoint for a presentation and choose a dark background theme with white text on it.

    Guess what? The formula editor of PowerPoint can only produce black text!!

    A N Y improvements in this area for the next Office??

  17. Si says:

    Brett’s idea reminds me of the show alternates feature in InDesign – not sure if Adobe relies solely on the ‘aalt’ OpenType feature in their fonts or use some programmatic intelligence.

    It would be nice to select a character and bring up a palette of related characters available in the same font – maybe even have a tab on the palette that shows the character in range of different fonts too.

  18. Evan says:

    I agree that it shouldn’t just show the same 20 characters all the time.

    When I’m working on my discrete math homework, I want to have some common greek letters, set notation (union, intersect, etc.), etc.

    When I’m working on a paper for Spanish, I want accented characters, upsidedown punctuation, etc.

    Maybe there could be some way so to do this, like if I insert an accented a, it knows that documents I’ve typed with that character also usually have other character with accents and the like. But if I insert a "is not in the set" symbol, it knows that documents I’ve typed with that character also usually have other set notation and greek letters.

  19. It looks like Microsoft is more and more stealing features from independent developers. See for an example. When can I receive my 1 million dollar check?

  20. Roman Soldat says:

    Romke: LOL! Would you prefer Microsoft shutting down all extensibility features in Office? Relax, now you can promote your add-ins as bringing Office "12" features to older versions.

  21. Anon says:

    Hugely off-topic but the links to your blog in your feed are all https? Is this deliberate

  22. Christian Kaiser says:


    if we wert to substitute all eszetts, we would be Swiss 😉

    What would you substitute it with? Sure not "ss", else "Busse" from "Buße" would (a) be pronounced differently (short vowel), and (b) would mean a different thing.

    If you use "sz", (a) is still valid as a vowel before a double consonant (which sz would be imho) is a short one.

    "Durch seine Maße hat es eine entsprechend große Masse" – write this without ‘ß’! This is one of the things the Swiss way of writing looks funny to me 😉


  23. Roman:

    I’m not in the business of making old Word versions look like Word 12. Since the early nineties I (and Woody Leonhard to be fair) have been adding hundreds of features to Word that MS didn’t offer. I can probably list at least a dozen of them that have subsequently been hijacked by MS.

    You may argue that I should see this as a compliment. In a way I do. But what triggered my post is the fact that MS introduces these features as great and original innovations, which they are not.

  24. James says:

    To Romke Soldaat:

    Isn’t it a bit arrogant to think you are the only one who can think of ideas to improve Office? Isn’t it a bit arrogant to think Microsoft has bookmarked your site as its source of new and innovative ideas? Isn’t it a bit arrogant to post an advertisement for your "million dollar" product in this forum?

    Yep, sure is.

  25. mschaef says:

    "I’m not in the business of making old Word versions look like Word 12. Since the early nineties I (and Woody Leonhard to be fair) have been adding hundreds of features to Word that MS didn’t offer. I can probably list at least a dozen of them that have subsequently been hijacked by MS."

    If your business model depends on holes in other products, you should expect them to be filled. The bright side of this is that at least you had a word processor to enhance: you didn’t have to write one from scratch.

  26. Kim Siever says:

    James Schend,

    You can do the same thing on a PC using the Al key and the number pad. For example Alt+0233 produces an e with a grave accent. é

  27. ChrisC says:

    Here’s a better solution than going to TeX: "Tools" | "AutoCorrect Options" assign the key sequence "$omega$" in the "Replace" box and the symbol for omega in the "With" box (I just tried it, it works)

    To find the omega symbol (so you can paste it in) use the "Character Map" program (on XP found under Accessories | System Tools)

    Now BEFORE flaming me about how much better TeX is for physics PhD students, realize that the scope of my answer is limited to addressing the character replacement which mschaef, Christian, Bret, etc. addressed above.

    BTW Bret, I believe there is already an autoreplace of "(c)" for the copyright symbol by default (at least it is in my Word`02 and I didn’t put it there)

    FWIW: I have found it is better to do fomulas in MS Paint and paste them into word as pictures than to use the formula editor.


    -Chris C.

    P.S. Again… I’m not trying to start a flame war; just saying what you want is already ‘almost’ in there in case you didn’t know.

  28. Sherrod Segraves says:


    The new UI is exciting. This is the first Office upgrade I’ve really looked forward to.

    On the other hand, this (Symbol) is the first feature you’ve blogged about that got a collective "meh."

    Please take Bret’s advice, and put in something that can match based on similarity, ideally on the main drop-down. For example, I’d expect "e" to match against the Euro symbol, accented E characters, etc. (The Windows XP Character Map utility partially has this, but with a really clunky interface.)


    I use Alt-keypad combinations a lot, but have yet to find a way to directly type non-ANSI Unicode characters in arbitrary apps without a utility or messing with the language bar.

  29. patently obvious says:


    I think Adobe holds patents on most of these "ideas". Best send a check off to Bruce 😉

  30. mschaef says:

    "Here’s a better solution than going to TeX: "Tools" | "AutoCorrect Options" assign the key sequence "$omega$" in the "Replace" box and the symbol for omega in the "With" box (I just tried it, it works)"

    That’s not a bad idea, it may be the best general solution Word offers.

    You’re right, it’s not TeX, but it’s better than a menu for each symbol.

  31. Universalis says:

    Make sure that you tell us how to type these symbols on the keyboard!!! I accept that I have to look at a chart the first time I type Ł, but to say that for every Ł in future I have to (a) take my hands off the keyboard (b) look up at the screen (c) move the mouse to the right area (d) see where my preferred symbol has popped up (e) click on it…. that’s madness! After the first Ł, tell me I can type Alt(321) instead. (A tooltip or something?)

    By the way, could you add hexadecimal Unicode input as well? All the Charmap and official Unicode® tables report character codes in hex. If I want to type ✔ or ψ then I don’t want to have to convert U+2714 or U+03C8 to decimal every time! See for a convention that you’re welcome to steal.

  32. Calum Benson says:

    @James: Apple didn’t do away with the Key Caps app, it’s still there in OSX. You just have to turn it on in the International control panel, after which it’ll show up on the language dropdown in the menu bar.

  33. Ashley Gadd says:

    Word already stores the last 18 characters you’ve used. I find it’s not enough. By the time I’ve used different dashes and hyphens, some bullet characters, a few Greek letters, and some special symbols such as degree or currency symbols, I’m forever searching for a symbol I’ve used that’s fallen off the stack.

    I also find it very hard to find the symbol I’m looking for. The m-dash and n-dash are in one place, the hyphen in another, the minus sign in a third, and I’m still looking for the non-breaking hyphen. Jensen, have you looked at improving the workflow for finding symbols that haven’t been used yet?

  34. Did you know that you can resize the Symbol dialog in Word 2003? Use the resizing handle in the bottom right corner. The larger you make it, the more recently used symbols you get. If you double-click the title bar of the dialog to maximize it, you get (at my screen resolution) 32 recently used symbols.

    I also find it convenient to assign keyboard shortcuts to frequently used symbols. I had assigned shortcuts to em and en dashes, em and en spaces before MS created built-in ones, and I also have them for dagger, double dagger, multiplication and division signs, foot and inch marks (single and double prime), etc.

  35. sfb says:

    "And why is the one I want in there? Because the gallery keeps track of the twenty most recently inserted symbols"

    So… where do we find the option to disable personalised symbols?

    half-wink. 😉

  36. Elmar Jansen says:

    I think one of the best features of Word is the option to insert (accented) symbols with the ctrl-combinations (pressing ctrl+`, ctrl+’, ctrl+shift+: etc. followed by a character). This is the easiest and a very intuitive way to get accented characters in Word, but for some reason it’s a rather undocumented feature. So the main problem is that so few people are aware of this real time-saver. I also find it rather surprising that this feature isn’t implemented in other (office)applications. This would really make a great improvement… Having to go to a menu/toolbar to insert accented symbols is just not easy and fast enough in day-to-day typing.

    BTW: in my experience the most commonly used way to get accented characters right is by correcting words using the spell checker.

  37. George Pribul says:

    I was just thinking, would it work to be able to choose the set of extra symbols based on the language/topic of the document.

    For example, if I was doing something mathematical it would be useful to be able to choose maths symbols. Or if it was a document in german, to be able to see all the relevant extra characters. Or is ability already available?

    Wonderful blog by the way!