OfficeMath UI

The post OfficeMath describes the history, model, file format, typography and math font of the native math facility introduced in Office 2007. That post refers to the present post for discussion of OfficeMath user interfaces (UI). OfficeMath UI can be grouped into keyboard, menu/ribbon, ink, and accessibility categories. Let’s consider each of these in turn. The keyboard, menu/ribbon, and ink categories are discussed in Chapter 6 of Creating Research and Scientific Documents with Microsoft Word.


Editing Math with Keyboard

A succinct summary of entering and editing math with a keyboard is given in this blog’s first post, Formula Autobuildup in Word 2007. Basically, type the hot key Alt+= to insert a math zone and then type math using TeX control words for symbols. For example, in UnicodeMath mode, typing a/b=c insertsThe UnicodeMath syntax is like that used in programming languages. Naturally there’s much more to math than symbols and fractions, and the keyboard input methods are described in UnicodeMath for the Unicode input method and in LaTeX/TeX input method for the LaTeX/TeX input method.

In UnicodeMath mode, build up to the “Professional” format is automatic as described in When Formula Autobuildup Occurs. In Word’s LaTeX mode, you must request build up. Enter Ctrl+= to build up a math zone into “Professional” format and Shift+Ctrl+= to build the math zone down into the current linear format (UnicodeMath or LaTeX). Or you can click on the corresponding options of the math-zone acetate rectangle.

In addition to the LaTeX/TeX control words, there are operator shortcuts described in Math Keyboard Shortcuts, Negated Operators, Keyboard Operator Shortcuts, Entering Unicode Characters, and Klinke’s Streamlined Math Input Notation. For example, /= autocorrects to ≠ and <= to ≤. Subscripts and superscripts are entered using _ and ^, respectively as discussed in Section 2.2 of UnicodeMath and in Keyboard Entry of Subscripts and Superscripts. Nice things to add include making the leading backslash optional and having an autocomplete drop-down menu of possible control words once you’ve entered the first few characters. For example, many control words start with \left and it would be nice to be able to select the desired one after typing \le rather than having to type in the whole word like \leftrightarrow for ↔.

In LaTeX mode, the subscript, superscript, numerator, and other math arguments are single entities. An entity can be a character or control word for a character like \alpha for α, or it can be an expression in curly braces like {a+b}. In UnicodeMath mode, the argument can be a sequence of alphanumeric characters. You can see such a difference by comparing what a^12 becomes: in LaTeX you get 𝑎¹2 and in UnicodeMath you get 𝑎¹². To get the latter in LaTeX input mode, enter a^{12}.

Unicode has many math characters (see Section 2 of Unicode Technical Report #25, Unicode Support for Mathematics). The post Math Symbol Hierarchy divides the math operator symbols into basic, intermediate, and full Unicode math categories. Most technical papers use the symbols in the basic and intermediate categories. The remaining characters are very specialized, e.g., ⪑, so you’ll probably never need them.

Built-up math zones convert alphabetic characters to math alphabetic characters, e.g., ‘a’ becomes ‘𝑎’, which is given by the Unicode character U+1D44E. Conversion to math alphabetic is overruled for special situations like trigonometric function names and can be overruled for arbitrary text. Also it doesn’t occur for Greek upper-case letters as noted in Math Greek Letters. Math spacing is important and User Spaces in Math Zones explains how UnicodeMath build up may remove a space that’s automatically inserted by math spacing rules. In LaTeX mode, spaces are ignored except to terminate control words.

You can navigate through a math zone Using Left/Right Arrow Keys in Mathematical Text or you can use a mouse. Math Selection is similar to selection of ordinary text, but if you select a math object start/end/separator delimiter, the whole object is selected. Up and down-arrow keys try to go to the logical target, e.g., up arrow in the denominator of a fraction goes to the numerator. In navigating and selecting text, it’s useful to understand the concept of the Text Insertion Point. The insertion point is in between characters, not on top of a character.

You can enter accented characters as discussed in Math Accents and in Representation of Math Accents. You can enter matrices as discussed in Entering Matrices. If you want to line up two or more equations just right, see Equation Arrays.

In OfficeMath, empty numerators, denominators, subscripts, superscripts, and other essential arguments, etc., display the place-holder character ⬚. If you want to hide the ⬚, insert a “zero-width space” given by the Unicode character U+200B as discussed in The Invisibles. In OneNote you can edit optional arguments. These arguments are normally not shown, but you can move inside them by using the left/right arrow keys. When the IP is inside an optional argument, the ⬚ is displayed and you can enter characters. For example, you can convert a square root into an nth root by navigating into the root’s index argument and typing n. To make such changes in Word or PowerPoint, you need to use a context-menu option.

Editing Math using Ribbon, Dialogs, Context Menus

If you become familiar with keyboard entry, you’ll probably find that the fastest way to enter math (see also the Ink section next). But admittedly, it’s not obvious how to enter many things. The math ribbon displays lots of math objects in readily clickable form. As such it provides easily discoverable ways to enter common mathematical expressions. For a comparison of keyboard and ribbon, see Math Ribbon Entry of Subscripts and Superscripts.

Math Context Menus provide context-sensitive ways to modify math objects, such as changing a stacked fraction into a slashed fraction, or aligning a set of equations at their equal signs. See also More on Math Context Menus. You can use the Office Insert Symbol Dialog to insert any Unicode character including all Unicode math symbols. The more common math symbols can be inserted using the symbol galleries on the math ribbon.

Smart phones running OfficeMath don’t sport a math ribbon, but a math on-screen keyboard could let you enter lots of math entities easily. Think of exposing math symbols instead of emoji and using surround menus. Also, smart phones can work with ink…


You can enter equations with a pen as described in OneNote Math Assistant and the links therein. Microsoft’s math ink recognition first shipped in Windows 7 with the applet called the Math Input Panel. This applet lets you enter mathematical text using a pen or a mouse. It recognizes what you enter and displays the result using a private version of RichEdit. It also lets you copy the results to Word, Mathematica, or any other application that reads Presentation MathML.

Many people may find that writing equations by hand is the easiest and fastest way to enter them into a computer. Since I’ve made similar claims for UnicodeMath entry, a colleague of mine and I decided to have a race. I chose nine equations from theoretical physics and we started entering. The colleague entering via hand writing beat me by a nose, but had two errors, whereas I had none. But really, we both won, since we demonstrated that we could enter equations into Word remarkably fast.


Math accessibility falls into two categories: speech and braille. Microsoft Office Math Speech shipped in over 18 languages in January 2017. As described in Speaking of math…, math speech has two granularities: coarse-grained for fluent speech and fine-grained for editing. Together with touch typing on a keyboard, this combination enables a blind, nondeaf person to consume and edit math, both elementary and advanced.

The OfficeMath speech capability could be extended in useful ways such as offering alternate speech as discussed in Speaking Subscripts, Superscripts, and Fractions. Also, the facility “spoon feeds” the math speech to UI Automation. Some Assisted Technologies (ATs) such as NVDA and JAWS would like to get MathML for math zones and generate the math speech (and braille) themselves. Ways to do this will be the subject of a future post. Interestingly MathML can, in principle, be used both for generating math speech and for editing math as discussed in Editing Math using MathML for Speech.

Key infrastructure for math braille shipped in August 2017, namely the RichEdit build up/down machinery used by OfficeMath applications added support for entering and editing math using Nemeth Braille—the first math linear format. More work is needed for applications to expose math braille to end users. The main reason for using Nemeth math braille is given in Braille for Math Zones, which points out that the usual braille digit code ambiguities don’t exist in math zones, which is where the math is. Specifically, braille contractions aren’t used in math zones, so digits can be represented unambiguously using computer braille codes; no numerical indicator is needed for digits in Nemeth math zones (aside from an obscure case). Nemeth braille in math zones works with all languages (is globalized), whereas braille in ordinary text is localized to the language being used.

Other posts describing work on math braille include Unicode – Nemeth Character Mappings, which discusses extending the Nemeth specification to include many Unicode math symbols not in the current Nemeth specification and Nemeth Braille Alphanumerics and Unicode Math Alphanumerics, which relates how the Unicode math alphanumerics can be represented using Nemeth braille. The post Math Braille UI describes ways to reveal the math insertion point (IP) using a refreshable braille display. The braille IP location is complicated relative to that for ordinary text in that math structure characters described in OfficeMath aren’t always represented by a Nemeth code. For fractions, they are, but the start delimiter of a subscript object, for example, isn’t present in the Nemeth code.

Math dictation would be another math input method for blind and sighted users alike. Imagine, you can say 𝑎² + 𝑏² = 𝑐² faster than you can write or type it! Math dictation would work with all devices, computers, tablets, and phones. Hopefully someday…

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