When I first started out as an editor, I wasn’t familiar with all of the special characters and symbols that are used in scientific publications. It wasn’t until I became an in-house editor working on civil engineering journals that I learned how important it is to be familiar with these characters and understand how they are used. Soon I had a cheat sheet above my desk and had started to memorize many of the keyboard shortcuts. Now I use these special characters frequently and know what to watch out for when I’m editing. This post includes some special characters that are important for academic editors to know.

But first, some FAQs:

How do I type these characters using the keyboard shortcuts?

On Windows, hold down the alt key while typing the four-digit code on the numeric keypad (num lock must be activated). On a Mac, press the keys simultaneously.

How do I use the Character Viewer on a Mac?

  1. Go to the Apple menu and open System Preferences.
  2. Click the Keyboard option.
  3. In the Keyboard window, check the option “Show Keyboard & Character Viewers in menu bar” at the bottom of the window.
  4. In the upper right of your desktop, click the flag icon to open the list of activated keyboards and select “Show Character Viewer.”
  5. Click the gear icon in the upper left and select “Customize List.”
  6. A list organized by type and region appears. Check blocks you use often and then click “Done” to close.

How do I use the Character Map on Windows?

  1. Click on the Start menu (Windows icon) on the lower left and then select “All Programs.”
  2. Select Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Character Map.
  3. A window should open that displays a series of characters in a grid.

You can also access special characters by going to Insert > Symbol in Microsoft Word.

Smart Quotes and Apostrophes

Keyboard shortcuts

Opening single quote

option + ]

alt + 0145

Closing single quote and apostrophe

option + shift + ]

alt + 0146

Opening double quote

option + [

alt + 0147

Closing double quote

option + shift + [

alt + 0148

When are these characters used?

Obviously I don’t want to get into all the intricacies of how to use correct punctuation, but I’ve listed a few areas that commonly trip people up below.

Straight quotes versus curly quotes. It is best practice in typography to always use curly quotes (also known as typographers’ quotes or smart quotes). Most software applications will change straight quotes to curly quotes automatically and have settings that can be adjusted if you are having trouble with these punctuation marks.

Punctuation with quotation marks. In general, in American English, periods and commas should go inside quotation marks; semicolons should go outside. In British English, it is common to see periods and commas placed outside quotation marks.

Single quotes versus double quotes. In American English, single quotes are reserved for quotes inside of quotes. In British English, the opposite is generally true. Double quotes are also sometimes used in American English to indicate a key term or a term coined by an author (in British English, single quotes would be used).


Keyboard shortcuts

En dash

option + –

alt + 0150

Em dash

option + shift + –

alt + 0151

When are these characters used?

Dashes and hyphens each have distinct usages.

Hyphens are generally used to

  • connect two words that are related to form a single concept or a joint modifier.

En dashes are generally used to

  • connect words that are related to each other by distance,
  • specify ranges,
  • connect a prefix to a proper open compound, and
  • form a compound modifier in which the elements of the compound have equal weight.

Em dashes are generally used to

  • indicate a strong break in the structure of a sentence,
  • designate interrupted speech, and
  • stand in for missing text.

En dashes with spaces versus em dashes without spaces. In American English, most style guides call for em dashes with no spaces.

In British English, en dashes with a space on either side are more commonly used.

As with all other aspects of editing, it’s important to remain consistent—follow the style guide for the particular project you are working on, or pay attention to the author’s predominant style.

Prime and Double Prime

Keyboard shortcuts

Unfortunately, there is no way to type prime symbols on a Mac using keyboard shortcuts, but these symbols can be accessed through the Character Viewer.

Prime: alt + 8242
Double prime: alt + 8243

When are these characters used?

It’s important to note that prime symbols are completely different from straight quotes and smart quotes. They are usually used as a unit of measure, such as with feet and inches or minutes and seconds. Most style guides provide guidance on when to use prime symbols and when to stick with single quotation marks.

The prime symbol is also used to indicate the orientation of DNA/RNA sugar backbones (e.g., in primer sequences). Authors often use an apostrophe instead of the prime symbol, so it’s important to watch out for this when you are editing. [Thank you to Claire Bacon for pointing this out!]


Keyboard shortcuts

option + ;

alt + 0133 OR ctrl + alt + full stop

When is this character used?

An ellipsis has two uses: to show that a sentence is unfinished or to indicate that text from a direct quote has been left out.

The format of an ellipsis, however, can vary. Different style guides have different rules for how to punctuate ellipses. Some state that the ellipsis character (created by using the keyboard shortcuts above) must be used; others call for the use of three full stops (periods) punctuated with nonbreaking spaces. Catherine Turner of Turner Proofreading has a great blog post on this very topic.

Degree Symbol

Keyboard shortcuts

option + shift + 8

alt + 0176

When is this character used?

The degree symbol is typically used to represent degrees of temperature and certain measurements.

Many times, authors will use a superscript lowercase letter “o” (or sometimes a superscript zero) instead of the proper degree symbol. It’s important to keep an eye out for this when you are editing scientific manuscripts, as some authors aren’t familiar with special characters in Word.

Plus/Minus Sign

Keyboard shortcuts

option + shift + =

alt + 0177

When is this character used?

The plus/minus symbol is a mathematical symbol that can have multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used. If you edit scientific or academic publications, you should keep in mind the discipline you are working in, such as mathematics, experimental sciences, engineering, botany, or chemistry.

Multiplication Sign

Keyboard shortcuts

Use the Character Viewer.

alt + 0215

When is this character used?

This symbol is generally used in mathematics to indicate multiplication of two numbers. Again, some authors are not familiar with the special characters in Word and will use a lowercase letter “x” to indicate multiplication. Keep an eye out for this while you are editing, and make sure to use the proper multiplication sign.

Greek Letters

Keyboard shortcuts

On a Mac, it is best to use the Character Viewer to find and insert Greek letters.

Below I’ve listed some Greek letters that are commonly used in scientific manuscripts. Please keep in mind that this is not a complete list of the Greek alphabet, however.

αalt + 224alpha
βalt + 225beta
εalt + 238epsilon
γalt + 947gamma
ηalt + 951eta
θalt + 952theta
κalt + 954kappa
λalt + 955lambda
μalt + 230mu
ξalt + 958xi
πalt + 227pi
ρalt + 961rho
σalt + 229sigma
τalt + 231tau
χalt + 967chi
When are these characters used?

According to the AMA Manual of Style, “Greek letters are frequently used in statistical formulas and notations, in mathematical composition, in certain chemical names for drugs, and in clinical and technical terms.”

Many medical and scientific publications include these symbols, so it’s a good idea to become familiar with them if you want to edit these types of works.

It’s also important to use Greek letters versus the spelled-out words consistently (e.g., “beta carotene” vs. “β-carotene”). Certain medical dictionaries prefer the use of one over the other. Follow the specific style guide for your project or consult the AMA Manual of Style for guidance.

When editing reference lists, be on the lookout for titles that may include these terms and clarify whether you should use spelled-out terms or Greek letters.

What have I missed? Are there others I should have included?

5 thoughts to “Special Characters All Editors Should Know

  • Alicia

    Thank you for this! Very helpful!

    • Denise Foster

      You’re welcome! I’m glad it is helpful.

  • Yateendra Joshi

    Re en dashes in British English

    Spaced en dashes, yes, but they need to be in pairs.

  • Janet Cannon

    What a great job! And so helpful.


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