All posts by Lucy

Symbols and special characters quickly, easily, and accurately

rendered three-dimensional symbol of e-mail
rendered three-dimensional symbol of e-mail

If you’ve edited or written docs with lots of special characters—let’s say a paper in biochemistry with lots of microgram symbols, µg, and temperatures in °C—or a paper with foreign-language words with lots of accented characters, even just number ranges with en-dashes, 1969–1978, or em-dashes in sentences, as above, you know how it can drag on your time and concentration to have to drop down a symbol menu, hunt for what you need, and select it with the mouse. When you have to do this repeatedly, either by continually menu-searching and mouse-clicking or by copying and pasting, it can get to be a real pain. Not to mention the very real possibility that your “ƒ” will show up as a “¢” or even just a mysterious box or empty underlined space in someone else’s program. I have also edited papers originally typed in Asian versions of Word where symbols were in a different font, usually “Batang” or “Gulim,” that created unsightly and inconsistent spaces between lines of text to accommodate the different typeface of one symbol. Sometimes these are even just quotation marks. (Tip: to reveal the source of a mysterious space between lines, try holding down the shift key while using the arrow key to highlight the lines of text. Watch the font name in the menu bar. When the name goes blank or changes to something else, you have just found your culprit. Use the arrow key to go letter by letter to pinpoint it, then change the font to match the font of your text.)

Keyboard shortcuts to commands and special characters are always a time saver. Every text and word-processing program, even HTML (with inclusion of a couple of tags), PDF comment and text replacement boxes, and fillable Web forms, has ASCII symbol capability, and universal, error-free, consistent, generic symbols compatible with every font are no further away than the number keypad on your keyboard.

To access the symbols, make sure your Num Lock key is turned on. Open Word, WordPerfect, OpenOffice Writer, even Excel, Notepad, or a new e-mail message. Type v-o-i-l- Alt-0224—voilà! (This works only with the keypad, not with the numbers in the top row of keys, by the way.) Now try Alt-0163—instant £ !

Two sets of symbols have been developed in conjunction with the Alt key; one uses three numbers, the other uses four (always beginning with zero). A brief search on the Web for ASCII symbols (try the search string < ascii symbol alt number > for a useful list of sites) will reveal more than several sites offering charts of the available symbols. Print out your favorite charts, one for each of the two sets, and keep it handy. You never know when you might need a Ĝ or ± or ™, and you won’t want to waste time and energy trying to find it in a drop-down symbol menu that might not even be the same as another user’s.

There are very few reasons to begin a sentence with “there are”


The next time you think your essay, article, or letter is finished, use the Search function to look for “there.” I’ve come to suspect that, for some writers, typing There is or There are to start a sentence or clause must be an unconscious habit. I think people do not realize how often they do it–or how cluttered, unfocused, overly wordy, and weak it makes their sentences. Break the habit of beginning sentences with there is or there are. Notice how, in the examples that follow, “there is” or “there are” makes the sentences less smooth and causes the reader to stumble a little.

Rewriting is often a straightforward matter, as in these examples:

  • weak, overly wordy: There is research that shows that obesity has a genetic component.
  • concise: Research shows that obesity has a genetic component.
  • weak: There are many things that can go wrong when instructions are not followed.
  • concise: Many things can go wrong when instructions are not followed.
  • weak: There was an incident last year of a student caught cheating.
  • direct: Last year, a student was caught cheating.
  • overly wordy: There is a lot that needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • better: A lot needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • better: Much needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • best: The house needs many repairs.

In other cases, the fix is not quite so straightforward and might require completely rethinking and rewriting, finding specific verbs to replace the deadly “is,” “are,” “have,” or “has”:

  • weak: We interviewed the employees, and there were few complaints.
  • direct: We interviewed the employees and heard few complaints.
  • especially overly wordy: There have been several issues concerning the problem of how to get more business.
  • direct: Getting more business is a problem. We have identified the following issues: (list would follow).
  • overly wordy: If there is one thing the principal can’t stand, it is students who are late for school. (this sentence has an additional problem: it could be interpreted to mean the principal has a personal dislike of students who are late.)
  • concise: The principal really does not tolerate tardiness.
  • weak: There are few reasons to begin a sentence with “there are.”
  • concise: Beginning a sentence with “there are” clutters and weakens it.

A Number of Confusing Expressions


less or fewer?
When you’re in the supermarket, do you count your purchases to see whether you can use the register for “Less than 14 items”? I hope not. I hope your supermarket has a register for “Fewer than 14 items.” Use fewer to compare numbers of items that can be counted individually (when talking about units of time or money, however, there are some exceptions). Use less for things considered in groups or as a mass, to express degree, extent, or amount. Less also modifies adjectives and adverbs.

  • We did the job in less time. (“time” is not items that can be counted individually)
  • We did the job in fewer hours. (“hours” can be counted)
  • The company hired fewer employees last year.
  • At that store you have fewer choices and less room to move around, there are fewer salespeople, and they are less attentive. (here, “choices” and “salespeople” can be counted; “room” cannot be counted as individual items; “attentive” is an adjective modified by “less” used as an adverb).
  • There were fewer than 52 cards in the deck.
  • The store made less money this month than it did in April.
  • but: She had less than 10 dollars. (exception for units of money)

number or amount?
These two are comparable to “less” and “fewer.” Use number in reference to items that can be counted; amount when speaking of groups as a whole or one item that cannot be counted.

  • A number of employees complained about the new policy. (i.e., several employees)
  • There is a huge amount of sugar in cola.
  • A small number of people win the lottery every year.

a number is, or a number are?
Related to “a number” is the question of whether it should be followed by a singular or plural verb. In the example of the employees, above, “a number [of employees]” seems to imply a singular verb, since “a” means “one.” Would it be correct to say “a number of employees is going to the retirement luncheon”? “A number of,” “a diversity of,” “a variety of,” and similar constructions are idiomatic expressions that mean “several” or “many” or “a few.”

The rule is very simple: An expression such as “a number (total, variety, diversity) of” that means “several,” “many,” or “a few” is followed by a plural verb. If you can substitute “several” in your sentence, use a plural verb. “The number (total, variety, diversity) of” is followed by a singular verb. “The number” is referring to a single entity.

  • A number of experiments have supported our results. (“several experiments” or “a few experiments”)
  • The number of experiments in this area has greatly increased in the last few years. (whatever that number is, it is larger now. The sentence is referring to a single body of experiments).
  • A diversity of students now enjoy the benefits of this program. (“several or many different ethnicities of students”)
  • The diversity of students at this school is surprising. (the single issue of diversity)
  • A variety of viewpoints were heard during the meeting. (“many different viewpoints”)
  • The variety of viewpoints heard during the meeting was not expected. (the fact of a body of viewpoints)
  • A total of 120 tests were conducted
  • The total is 120.

Notice that “a number of” is not comparable to collective nouns such as “group” or “team.” It would be incorrect to say “a group of foreign visitors are coming in for a tour.” “A group” is a single entity. The word “several” cannot be substituted for “a group of” because “several visitors” would mean separate, independent visitors, not members of a single group.

  • A group of foreign visitors is coming in for a tour.
  • The group of foreign visitors is having lunch at The Outback restaurant.