random technical thoughts from the Nominet technical team

Apple keyboard symbols

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Posted by jay on Oct 30th, 2006

The apple keyboard has some keys on it with only symbols, no words. Unfortunately to me these symbols are completely meaningless and so it has taken me ages to understand what those keys really do.

Even worse, Apple keyboards are completely inconsistent.  For example on the MacBookPro keyboard it says ‘home’, ‘end’ and ‘page’, but on the normal standalone keyboard it used the symbols ↖, ↘, ⇞, ⇟ without any words. On some keyboards the word ‘option’ is used and in some case the symbol ⌥.

Unfortunately Apple uses these symbols in several places, such as the preferences pane where you control key combinations used for common tasks. This means that setting and using those combinations is trivial if the keyboard has them on the keys, but not otherwise. For example the following symbol ⌫, appears on the Finder menu as one of the keys used to ‘empty trash’, but it is nowhere to be found on any of my Apple keyboards. I’ll take a guess it is a backspace key.

It also means that you never learn what other functionality you might be affecting since you don’t know how those keys are used. This side-effect learning is normally quite important.

The final problem I had is that there is a key on the apple keyboard with just the  symbol and the command symbol ⌘. Now I know what the command bit does, but do I have a clue what the Apple symbol is on there for? No chance.

Buried away on the Apple web site, I did manage to find a symbols document which explains most of the symbols, but not all.

The other useful thing that I discovered when trying to work all this out is what Unicode characters can be used to represent these symbols. They may not be the exact ones that Apple use but they seem close enough. So, to finish off, here is a helpful reference that combines the Apple document above with the Unicode code points.

Table of Apple keyboard symbols
Character Unicode code point (hex) Usage
⌘ U+2318 Command
⇧ U+21E7 Shift
⌥ U+2325 Option
⌅ U+2305 Enter
↩ U+21A9 Return
⌃ U+2303 Control
⇞ U+21DE Page Up
⇟ U+21DF Page Down
↖ U+2196 Home
↘ U+2198 End
⎋ U+238B Escape
⌫ U+232B Delete (Backspace)
⌦ U+2326 Forward Delete
⇪ U+21EA Caps Lock
⏏ U+23CF Eject Media
⌧ U+2327 No idea.
 U+F8FF (private use) No idea.
⎇ U+2387 No idea.

I can’t find the Unicode characters for the Apple tab key symbol with the sloping line, but then that only appears on one of my keyboards, on the others the line is vertical. Sigh.

Update: I just came across this earlier article, from an unusual source that sheds some light on the keys I don’t understand. But not much.

20 Responses

  1. Chris R Says:

    The one with the box crossed out (⌧) is the clear button. In Calculator.app it clears the input, i.e. it is like pressing ‘C’. Not sure what else it is used for though….

  2. jad Says:

    The Clear key has the same effect as the Delete command in the Edit menu: It removes the selection without putting it on the Clipboard. Not all keyboards have a Clear key, so don’t require its use in your application.that was from the Apple Developer site.

  3. techblog » Blog Archive » Keyboard that *almost* explains all those odd Mac symbols Says:

    [...] Following up on Jay’s posting on the unexplained symbols on Mac keyboards, I was also initially rather confused when I first started using a Mac 18 months ago. What was even stranger was that books such as David Pogue’s Mac OS X – The Missing Manual didn’t explain either. Surely one of the first things you need to tell a newcomer to Mac OS X is that when someone talks about the ‘Command’ button they mean that one with the cloverleaf pattern on it? [...]

  4. Pavy Says:

    Where is the ‘Print Screen’ button or shortcut.

  5. BnG Says:

    I believe the apple key is a holdover from previous versions of the mac. They switched to the command symbol but left the apple on the key for longtime apple users.

  6. Scrivere i simboli dei tasti at Boliboop Says:

    [...] techblog Computer Keybord Command [...]

  7. Bugman Says:

    You can get the  (Apple symbol) by pressing Command-Shift-k. Another useful one for AU/US keyboard layouts is Option-3 which will give you the £ (pound) symbol! I have found that very useful now that I have moved to the UK!

  8. Bugman Says:

    Oh I’m so sorry, I meant Option-Shift-k !!!

  9. esteban Says:

    In the keyboard icon on the menubar, you can chose “keyboard viewer” (if it’s not there you can enable this in /preferences/international/keyboard)

    hold “shift” and it changes, useful for ‘ñ’ ‘é’ ‘è’ ‘û’, even “tree points”… it will be great to know how to change this defaults; I need a ‘¿’ for spanish… althoug it is in my favorites in the “special characters” (under edition in the finder and mac native apps)…

  10. avill Says:

    If your keyboard and OS are in english, and you need to use characters from another language. You can use the ALT (option) key.

    for example,
    á press alt+e and then a
    é press alt+e and then e
    ñ press alt+n and then n
    ¿ press alt+?
    ¡ press alt+!
    ü press alt+u and then u again

    there are more combinations to get different symbols using alt and any key

  11. Paul D. Waite Says:

    Also, in the UK, “option” is called “alt”.

  12. trev Says:

    the last symbol means option/alt

  13. Anriëtte Says:

    Alt+e, Alt+u and Alt+i can be used with any vowel letter (a,e,i,o,u) to produce ä, ë, ü, ï, ö, or â, ê, î, û, ô or á, é, í, ó, ú.

    Option is called Alt in South Africa also.

    I have a problem in Tiger with a Mac Mini. I got a new aluminium Apple keyboard today, but the numpad won’t work. When I press 4, 2, 6, 8 and 5 it moves the cursor left, down, right, up and clicks respectively.

    Does anyone know what is going on here?

  14. Nel Says:

    Thanks for the decoding buddy… ;)
    Apple keyboards look great but are such a pain to get used to for a standard Windows user…

  15. nel Says:

    no words seriously sucks. make it easy for the ppl…

  16. Donald Says:

    Older Keyboards have a § key,(±) below the esc key as well as the` (~ with shift) next to the left shift key. The latter is an extra key in that row, with the shift key shorter to accommodate it. What does § symbolize? It is also on the French version (seen via keyboard viewer), alone in a different position. The “symbol document” page has been deleted from the Apple website.

  17. Donald Says:

    I forgot to add that it is important that your computer can match to the keyboard: it has to be older and/or have the correct driver if it is not made by Apple

  18. OkseJohn Says:


    The problem sounds like ‘Num Lock’ is activated – see if you can find that button somewhere.


    § in Denmark at least is used at the beginning of a law-paragraph. I dunno where it’s used elsewhere – but I would suppose something similar.

  19. Dum Says:

    Hi all, if you’re as tired as I’m of using the alt+e to get áéíóú, try setting you keyboard to English International layout.
    That will allow you to use your “‘” to get those character.
    There is more, use the “Show Keyboard Viewer” to learn more.

  20. terry Says:

    i can’t seem to do an @ from my apple keyboard .

    can anyone enlighten me


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