What to do when your keyboard is broken

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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