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The visual layout of a computer keyboard refers to the letters and characters that are marked on its physical keytops. This is a characteristic of the keyboard's hardware manufacture. The functional layout of a keyboard refers to the characters that each key actually generates. For a computer keyboard, the functional layout is controlled by software and is often, but not necessarily, related to the visual layout.

US English keyboard visual layout
US English keyboard visual layout. Visual layout refers to what is marked on the phsyical keytops.

For example, the key that has the "/" character inscribed on it generally generates the "/" character when it is pressed. However, this can easily be changed by changing the keyboard driver software, which maps physical keys to the characters they generate.

Many computers sold in North America are furnished with the US English keyboard visual layout (hardware) and come configured with the US English keyboard functional layout (software). Some computers sold in Canada have a US English (hardware) keyboard with French symbols marked on the keytops in addition to the standard US English markings. These computers have both US English and Canadian French functional layouts configured in software so that the user can switch back and forth with a certain key combination. Users sometimes inadvertently trigger this keystroke and find that the "/" key on their keyboards suddenly starts generating the "é" symbol.

Scientific writing and editing requires frequent entry of mathematical and engineering symbols that are not found on the standard US English keyboard visual and functional layouts. These include the degree symbol (°) and the plus/minus symbol (±), for example. The insert symbol function in Microsoft Word works if the number of insertions is small. It requires that one find the appropriate symbol in the grid of other obscure characters. This approach only works for Word; other software requires different approaches. Some people use multi-digit Windows Alt codes for symbols, either memorizing them or keeping them on sheets of paper beside the keyboard. However, both of these approaches quickly become impractical for frequent entry of a wide variety of symbols.

Canadian French (unshifted) functional layout
Canadian French keyboard functional layout. Functional layout refers to what character each key actually generates.

In some technical circles, writers are tempted to use small images or pictures for symbols. However, this causes problems in formatting when these symbols are used in inline text.

Similar challenges arise in entering text in a multilingual environment: a keyboard layout suited for one language may not provide a way to enter the accents and characters used in another language. Again, the use of Alt codes or Word's insert character function may work in some cases. However, a much more efficient method for serious multilingual work is to switch back and forth among various specialized functional layouts for the same physical keyboard via an easily configured keystroke. This means that for some languages, the functional layout may not match the visual layout of the letters on the keytops. However, this is generally not an issue for intensive use as one becomes accustomed to data entry in each language.

TimmiT's experience in technical and French/English writing and editing means that we have confronted these issues of entering scientific symbols and accented characters. This has led us to the development of two products that we make available for free:

What about customized keyboard layouts?

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