Alt Graph Key, Compose Key, Dead Key

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .
sun keyboard ret
The Meta, ⎄ Compose, Alt Graph keys, on Sun Microsystem's Type 6 Keyboard

What is the difference between Alt Graph key, Compose key, Dead key?

They are used to insert special characters. The difference is how you press them.

[see Accent Marks: Trema, Umlaut, Macron, Circumflex, and All That]

Alt Graph Key

The Alt Graph key, usually labeled “AltGr”. This key is a modifier key. It is for inserting special characters. Press 【Alt Graph+key】 to insert a special char.

For example, when using US international layout:

This key is on some European keyboards. It's also on Sun Microsystem's Type 6 Keyboard.

Which character is inserted with what key is dependent on the keyboard layout. [see International Keyboard Layouts]

On Windows, the right Alt becomes Alt Graph if you set your keyboard layout to one of European layouts.

Mac keyboard viewer us int 2017  41373
Mac keyboard viewer, with ⌥ option key down, US International layout, 2017. Those colored orange are prefix keys, allowing you to type accented characters such as {é ü ô}.

On the Mac, the ⌥ option key serve the same purpose as Alt Graph. [see Mac Keyboard Viewer and Unicode]

Compose Key

compose key on lk201 keyboard 0574
Compose key on LK201 keyboard

The Compose Key key is also for inserting special characters. But it is used in a different way than Alt Graph key.

The Compose Key is used as a starting key of a key sequence. Press Compose Key first (and release it), then type other keys, to insert a special char. For example

The Compose Key is on Sun Microsystem's Type 6 Keyboard and usually on unix “workstation” keyboards of 1980s.

Compose Key key has a Unicode symbol . [see Unicode Keyboard Symbols ⌘ ⏎ ⌫]

Dead Key

french keyboard layout 2017 04 30
French (AZERTY) keyboard layout. Red are a dead keys. image source
jelly comb keyboard french azerty 11754
French AZERTY keyboard. The ^ and ¨ (to the right of P) are dead keys.

[see French Keyboard Layout]

Dead key is a special key similar to Compose key. It is used for inputting chars with diacritic marks, such as:

You press the dead key first, then type a letter.

Many European language layout have both Alt Graph key and dead keys. See: International Keyboard Layouts.

On the Mac, 【⌥ option+e】 is a software dead key. It adds the acute mark to any letter typed after.

[see Accent Marks: Trema, Umlaut, Macron, Circumflex, and All That]

Emacs has over 1k keybinding, including a full set of keys for Alt Graph, ⎄ Compose, and dead keys. [see A Curious Look at Emacs's One Thousand Keybindings]

Which is Better Design? Alt Graph, Compose, or Dead Key?

Alt Graph and ⎄ Compose serves the same purpose. The only difference is that one is a modifier key, you need to hold it down. Compose is a better design, because:

Dead key has a special place. That is, if there are a few special characters that are used very frequently, having a dead key for them is more efficient than using ⎄ Compose. For example, suppose in your language the characters é and ú and í occur frequently. If you add dedicated keys for them, that would be expensive, because keys space is limited. Using ⎄ Compose, you might press 【⎄ Compose ' e】. Using Dead key, you just press 【dead ' e】. Of course, you will need a extra physical key on your keyboard for each possible accent mark. But, if there's just a few specific symbol that you need to input frequently, it's good to have one dedicated dead key for it.

In general, keyboard should just have a ⎄ Compose key.

Keyboard Keys Topic

  1. Enter
  2. Home/End
  3. Tiny Space Bar
  4. Page Up, Page Down
  5. Print Screen, SysRq, ScrLk, Pause, Break
  6. Control, Capslock
  7. Zoom Button
  8. Volume Wheel
  9. Modifier Keys
  10. F1 F2 F3
  11. Menu/App
  12. Backspace
  13. Alt Graph, Compose, Dead Key
  14. Escape Key
  15. Arrow Keys

Keyboard Layouts

  1. qwerty heatmap  to build a fire-s365x171
    Alternative Layouts
  2. Alt Graph, Compose, Dead Key
  3. Most Efficient Layout?
  4. Maltron vs Dvorak
  5. Colemak vs Workman


  1. Dvorak Layout
  2. Hardware vs Software Dvorak
  3. Myth of QWERTY vs Dvorak
  4. Dvorak vs Colemak
  5. Blank Keycaps vs Labeled Keys
  6. List of Dvorak Keyboards
  7. Qwerty to Dvorak, A PhD thesis, 1978


  1. International Layouts
  3. German
  4. German Ergonomic
  5. French
  6. New French Layout
  7. French Ergonomic
  8. French Letter Frequency
  9. Russian
  10. Portuguese Ergonomic
  11. chinese pinyin input 2017-07-19
    Chinese Input Methods
  12. Pinyin Letter Frequency 拼音字母頻率
  13. Japanese input method menu 39864
    Japanese Input Method

Layout Efficiency

  1. English letter frequency To Build a Fire  Jack London 50383
    Char Frequency Counter
  2. Most Efficient Layout for Numbers?
  3. Semicolon vs Apostrophe Frequency
  4. Inverted Number Row Better?

If you have a question, put $5 at patreon and message me.