Special Character

A special character is one that is not considered a number or letter. Symbols, accent marks, and punctuation marks are considered special characters. Similarly, ASCII control characters and formatting characters like paragraph marks are also special characters.

Unlike alphanumeric characters, special characters are extremely versatile and can be used for a number of different purposes in writing, coding, and mathematical operations.

Special characters may also be referred to as special letters, special symbols, or keyboard characters.

History of Special Characters

The history of special characters depends on the type of character in question. For example, early Greek writers began using punctuation marks to separate one thought from another. Eventually, these marks evolved to change the meaning of a sentence depending on the mark and how it’s used.

Other special characters like @ and & are derived from ligatures, or the combination of two or more letters. The ampersand (&), for example, comes from a ligature that joined the letters in et, the Latin word for and.

How to Type Special Characters

On a typical U.S. QWERTY keyboard, there are 32 special characters. The special characters list below is in order of appearance from left to right on a standard QWERTY keyboard:

~TildeAccent mark commonly used in SpanishShift + `
`Grave accentAccent mark commonly used in French`
!Exclamation pointIndicates the end of an exclamatory sentence or phrase; expresses logical negation in programming languages; notes factorial operation in mathematicsShift + 1
@AmpersatConnects usernames to domain names in email addresses; expresses rates in accounting and invoicing; precedes usernames/handles on social media platforms and chat roomsShift + 2
#OctothorpeNumber sign; expresses non-executable statement in programming; triggers hashtags on social mediaShift + 3
$Dollar signExpresses value in currencyShift + 4
%Percent signExpresses value in percentagesShift + 5
^Circumflex, caretExpresses exponents in mathematics; shorthand for CTRL key on PCsShift + 6
&AmpersandSymbolizes “and” in English text; combines values in spreadsheet formulasShift + 7
*AsteriskMathematical multiplication; indicates footnotesShift + 8
(Open parenthesisBegins parenthetical textShift + 9
)Close parenthesisEnds parenthetical textShift + 0
_UnderscoreAlternative to space key when spaces are not allowedShift + -
-Hyphen, dashMathematical subtractions; creates en dashes or em dashes in written text-
+Plus signMathematical additionsShift + =
=Equal signMathematical equations=
{Open braceOpens groups of statements or blocks of code in various programming languagesShift + [
[Open bracketBegins section of missing details in quoted text; begins string validation in programming languages[
}Close braceCloses groups of statements or blocks of code in various programming languagesShift + ]
]Close bracketEnds section of missing details in quoted text; ends string validation in programming languages; ends mathematical notation for intervals]
|Vertical bar, pipeDelimiter in text files; redirects a command's output to the input of another in a command line interface (CLI); represents an OR boolean operator (double pipe)Shift + \
\BackslashSeparates locations in a file or network path\
:ColonSeparates the protocol from a web address in a URL; identifies a range in a spreadsheet formula; precedes a list of items in written textShift + ;
;SemicolonJoins two related sentences in written text; finishes an instruction in programming languages; separates long list items in written text;
"Double quotation markIndicates a verbatim transcription of something that has been written or spoken; identifies text or data that is not part of a programming command or HTML tagShift + '
'Single quotation mark, apostropheContains commands or literal strings; indicates a quotation within a quotation; expresses a contraction or possessive noun in written context'
<Open angle bracket, less thanExpresses the relationship between two values in which the one on the right is greater than the one on the leftShift + ,
,CommaSeparates items in a list, joins independent clauses or sentences with a conjunction; separates digits in large numbers; separates values or elements in a computer program,
>Close angle bracket, greater than symbolExpresses the relationship between two values in which the one on the left is greater than the one on the rightShift + .
.PeriodIndicates the end of a declarative or imperative sentence; separates a file name from the file extension; separates sections of a URL.
?Question markIndicates the end of an interrogative sentenceShift + /
/Forward slashMathematical division; separates month, day, and year of a date; signifies non-executable statements in programming languages; closes tags in HTML and XML; delimites expressions; separates locations in a file or network path; writes URLs and network addresses/

Special Characters in Passwords

Special characters are often required when creating a strong password. This is because they add complexity to the password and reduce the chances that the user’s account will be hacked.

Many hackers use lists of common or easily guessed phrases and combinations of characters (such as “password” and “1234”) to gain access to a user’s account, so special characters make the password less predictable. However, special characters that are used in predictable ways (like replacing “a” with “@” or “s” with “$”) have lost their effectiveness when it comes to password strength.

Special Character Software

Many operating systems have programs or shortcuts that allow users to type symbols and special characters that aren’t found on a standard QWERTY keyboard. However, these programs may not be compatible with all applications. They also may not have all the special characters or symbols you need, or the keystrokes may be too complex to recall easily.

In these instances, you may benefit from a special character software or character map application. These include:

  • PopChar
  • BabelMap (windows)
  • Rocket (mac)
  • WinCompose
  • Uosk
  • Character Map UWP
  • SymbSearch
  • WizKey

Webopedia Staff
Webopedia Staff
Since 1995, more than 100 tech experts and researchers have kept Webopedia’s definitions, articles, and study guides up to date. For more information on current editorial staff, please visit our About page.
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