Home » Effective Style » It’s Time for Keyboard Reform…

It’s Time for Keyboard Reform…

…but meanwhile, we have to learn to make do with the keyboards we’ve got.

The keyboard on your computer is inexcusably bad for writing. It has all sorts of keys that are completely useless to a writer (and to almost anyone else), and it’s missing some characters that are absolutely essential.

Look at your computer keyboard now (if you’re reading this on a computer with a keyboard). Ignoring the function keys for a moment, you’ll notice that the very first key, the one at the top left of the keyboard, is one you never use. It’s a tilde and a grave accent. But you can’t use the tilde to spell cañon, or the grave accent to spell crème, because it’s not a compounding character.  Aside from certain increasingly archaic uses in Web addresses (some academic servers, in particular, still precede the individual user’s name with a tilde), you, the ordinary writer, will never touch this key.

On the opposite side of the keyboard, we find two characters that are just as useless, or at least should be. There is no need at all for a |, and only Windows file systems use the .

You may also notice that there are no fewer than four different kinds of brackets: (, [, {, <. Parentheses are necessary to a writer, and square brackets are useful for marking interpolations. The others are needed only by programmers.

The caret (^) is also useless, and the underscore (_) ought to be useless, except that people often put it in file names where spaces aren’t allowed. (A hyphen would accomplish the same thing. Whether there should ever have been such a thing as a file name in which spaces are not allowed is a separate question.)

If you have a desktop computer or a large laptop with a full-size keyboard, you will notice another absurdity: the functions of the arrow keys, Home, End, and so on, are all duplicated on the numeric keypad, which is necessary to make your keyboard compatible with computers that haven’t been made since the 1980s. If a car is an antique at 25 years old, then a 25-year-old computer is an archaeological relic.

On the other hand, some really essential characters are missing.

Foremost are apostrophes and quotation marks. All we get are the halfhearted straight-up-and-down marks that the computer keyboard inherited from the typewriter keyboard. These are not acceptable for publication. Your word processor uses all kinds of intelligence to try to convert those into the right and left marks that are correct for printing, but your word processor often makes the wrong choice in spite of all its intelligence.

The em dash (—) is also absolutely essential punctuation that you can’t get from your keyboard. Again, your word processor has some intelligence to make up this deficiency, and again, it’s inadequate.

So how do we make up for these inadequacies?

On a Macintosh, the proper quotation marks, apostrophes, and dashes are accessible through awkward key combinations. It’s better than nothing, which is what you get by default in Windows and Linux.

It’s also possible to remap your keyboard. You can use a word-processor macro to place a dash on a certain key combination, for example. In Linux, the layout of your keyboard is controlled by a simple text file: edit the text file, and you edit your keyboard. Doubtless there are Windows programs that can accomplish the same thing.

But there are probably many readers out there right now—the readers who are working in cubicles and offices—who are not allowed to install new software or fiddle with the operating system. Your only option, dear oppressed masses, is to fool your word processor when it guesses wrong.

One example should be enough to explain the general principle. Your word processor assumes that you want an opening single quotation mark if you type an apostrophe before a word. But you need an apostrophe:

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d

should be

’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

Fool your word processor by typing the apostrophe twice:

‘’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

Then delete the first apostrophe.

Observe how your word processor behaves, and you’ll be able to think of similar ways to fool it whenever you need a punctuation mark that it doesn’t want to give you.

And if there are any readers out there with entrepreneurial spirits and manufacturing connections, they should know that the Editor and many of his friends in the publishing industry would be willing to pay a premium for a computer keyboard optimized for typography.


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