A diagram of the QWERTY keyboard lowercase characters
Productivity Tools, Tools & Tips

Typing French Accented Characters on a QWERTY Keyboard


If you’re using a computer designed for the English-speaking market, be that US, International or English-English, it  can be a challenge to type French accented characters. In systems set up for French speakers, its far simpler because they have a AZERTY keyboard, which gives quick access to the characters and symbols that are needed.

For English-speakers, our systems are shipped by default with a QWERTY keyboard – so called because the first six characters on the keyboard are Q-W-E-R-T and Y. Since that keyboard is designed around the frequency of letters and characters used in English (and there are some US and UK differences, in the main they are the same) obviously there’s unlikely to be any reason to access the many accented letters used in the French alphabet. But what if you do find you need them? Maybe you’re studying French or resident there, or a native French speaker stuck with a QWERTY system. In this post I’ll describe three different workarounds that will make it much easier to find the accents you need.

Three Ways to Type French Accented Characters

One way is to become familiar with the ASCII or ANSI codes for each accented letter or symbol. These are basically a combinations of machine-readable codes that anyone who’s worked with HTML will probably have come across already, and usually involve a combination of keys, such as Alt or Alt+Shift and a three- or four-digit number. For example, press Alt and type 0181 and the micro character, “µ”, is displayed. These codes can seem laborious to learn at first but, as a tech writer (by trade), I’m a big fan of these; they’re the only way to program special characters into FrameMaker template headings and in non-WYSIWYG coding tools with the benefit that if you programme the ANSI code you know it’s going to come out right at the other end. I guess I just got used to them. If you want to give them a try you can use the list shown in the table below.

LetterAccented Character & ASCII (Lowercase) CodeAccented Character & ANSI (Uppercase) Code
Aà = Alt + 133
á = Alt + 160
â = Alt + 131
À = Alt + 0192
Á = Alt + 0193
 = Alt + 0194
Eé = Alt + 130
è = Alt + 138
ê = Alt + 136
ë = Alt + 137
É = Alt + 144
È = Alt + 0200
Ê = Alt + 0201
Ë = Alt + 0203
Iî = Alt + 140
ï = Alt + 139
Î = Alt + 0206
Ï = Alt + 0207
Oó = Alt + 162
ô = Alt + 147
Ó = Alt + 0211
Ô = Alt + 0212
Uù = Alt + 151
û = Alt + 150
Ù = Alt + 0217
Û = Alt + 0219
Æ æ = Alt + 145Æ = Alt + 146
Cç = Alt + 135
Quotation Marks« = Alt + 174
» = Alt + 175

Another useful code is for the Euro currency symbol (Alt+0128).
And advantage of knowing the ANSI codes is they will work on ANY system: Windows, Mac, etc.

The second way involves installing the US or UK International Keyboard and using this in place of your US or UK default. This method is relatively simple once you’ve got the keyboard set up. There’s a small learning curve but no long term memory demands. I have a printed list of the ANSI codes – and sometimes they are useful – but since I installed the International keyboard I am using them less and less.

Finally, you can install the French (of French Canadian) keyboard, which uses the AZERTY layout. This isn’t so easy to use on a QWERTY keyboard unless you have excellent visual memory because the layout is very different. I don’t recommend this option on a PC. It’s less cumbersome on a MAC because that also gives you a visual keyboard option (this may exist for Windows, but if so I haven’t found it – yet). Since I’m talking about Windows here, we’ll skip right over this and go back to the International keyboard layout as I think that’s the most accessible of the three options for Windows users.

Here’s an overview of the differences and a quick reference for accessing the accented letters on the International keyboard and also a few other suggestions that make writing in French on a QWERTY keyboard more manageable.

Differences between the UK Default and International Keyboards

The two images below show the main differences between the regular UK and International keyboards. They’re really very similar – and anyone who also uses a Mac or iPad will be familiar with the placement of the @ and ” symbols; it’s just the behaviour, with regards to combining keystrokes to add accents, that makes the difference.

UK International vs Default Keyboard Layout (Uppercase/Shift)
UK International vs Default Keyboard Layout (Lowercase/No Shift)

UK International Keyboard Quick Reference

You can always find visual representations of the International keyboard to help you navigate it but they are pretty confusing in themselves. This list of key strokes is, I find, easier to use.

Accented Letter(s)AccentDescriptionExample
á éAccute  (single quote), the letter (a, e, i, o, u)‘ a = á
‘ e = é
à èGrave`(key to the left of the 1 on the keyboard), the letter (a, e, etc.)`a = à
`e = è
êCirconflexShift+6, e^ e = ê
çCedille (single quote), c`c = ç
öTrémaShift+’ (single quote), o‘ o = ö
« »Quote marksCtrl+Alt+[
[ = «
] = »

The only snag with the above is that the key you use to apply the acute, grave and tréma accents is also the one you need to work alone, should you need a plain ol’ apostrophe. To do this, just hit the apostrophe (single quote) key, then hit the spacebar twice: the first time to make the apostrophe mark, the second time to add a space after it. The same goes for UK and US English-style quotation marks (curly quotes):

To get an apostrophe, type: ' (single quote), space, space

To get UK/US quotation marks, type: Shift + ' (single quote), space, space

Once you have the International keyboard setup you’ll wonder how you every managed without it. Setting it up can be tricky though – so in my next post I’ll give you instructions on how to do it.

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