What to do when your keyboard is broken

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Your deadline is in four hours, you’ve got pages to write and BAM! the ‘M’ key breaks on your keyboard …. What do you do?

That happened to Colin Chambers, a University of Buffalo student when a drink spilled on his keyboard and as he put it:

“The letter between “L” and “N” in the english alphabet just stopped working on y laptop’s keyboard”.

He wrote a covering note, explaining the problem and the ‘graactical’ errors that resulted.

Colin’s dilemma got us wondering, how can you workaround a broken key or when a symbol you need isn’t on your keyboard.  It’s happens more often that you might thing, for example when you need a currency symbol beyond the one on your keyboard like   $ £ € ₭  ₱ ₹ ₨ ¥ and others.

There’s more than one way to do this, lets look at a few to choose from.  Some in Office but a better solution available in both Windows and Mac.

Copy / Paste

The solution Colin used was copy and paste.  He’d have upper and lower case M already in a document or on a web page.  Select the letter and paste it into Word as required.  For ongoing use, put the two letters in a separate document to copy from.

Insert | Symbol

An easier option is Insert | Paste in Office.  While it’s intended for symbols not on a regular keyboard, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used for regular letters.  Insert | Symbols

Even better, the recently used symbols are shown in a drop-down list for easy re-use.

Shortcut Key

The Insert Symbol dialog (above) has a ‘Shortcut Key’ button which is the doorway to another option.  Assign a key combination to insert the missing letter or symbol.

Here we’ve assigned Alt + Shift + W to insert capital M.  It’s saved to Normal.dotm so it’ll work in most Word documents.  We’ve made sure the key-combo is ‘unassigned’ so it doesn’t override something already used in Word.

Of course, you’d assign two shortcuts – one for upper and lower case letters.


A similar alternative is Autocorrect.  This tells Word to replace a combination of characters.  It’s normally used to correct common spelling errors or expand acronyms but could be used here.

Above, we’ve set  ~w  to be replaced with lower case m .

This approach has a limitation because AutoCorrect only works when the Replace characters are followed by a space, paragraph end, fullstop etc.  That’s no use when the letter you want is in the middle of a word.

The workaround is to use Replace.  Setup the AutoCorrect as shown above but also use Replace to change any combinations that AutoCorrect didn’t fix.

On-screen keyboard in Windows or Mac

Beyond Office, the best option is the virtual or on-screen keyboard.  A mouse click can add any letter or symbol not available on the regular keyboard.

In Windows, open the On-Screen Keyboard app.

Or use the long-standing Windows Accessory ‘Character Map‘.

On a Mac, go to System Preferences | Keyboard | Input Sources and check the ‘Show input menu on the menu bar’ option.

On the menu bar, the Input pull-down menu has a Show/Hide Keyboard Viewer.

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