How To Fix The Computer Keyboard: Slate Readers Offer Their Suggestions

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Feb. 6 2012 2:06 PM

Do Not Make It Easier To Type Exclamation Points!

Slate readers offer their suggestions for improving the computer keyboard.

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Is the exclamation point really in the right place on the keyboard?

Comstock Images.

In an essay last week for Slate, I asserted that everybody hates something about their computer keyboard. After suggesting five small-scale adjustments—getting rid of the caps lock and insert keys, creating a dedicated em-dash key—I asked readers to provide their own desired keyboard fixes. Hundreds did so. Many advocated for smart tweaks I’d never considered. Other commenters worked together to come up with solutions to common keyboard-related complaints raised by their fellow readers.

Overall, the comments seem to support my contention that nearly everyone struggles with some element of the contemporary keyboard. Commenter Gizdal, for instance, noted that control-alt-delete can be a bear to type and suggested a single dedicated key that would produce the same result. Meanwhile, Nick Lee noted his annoyance that the enter key resides so close to the shift key. “I can’t tell you how many times my little pinky has confused the two,” he wrote.

A surprising number of commenters raised issues related to the placement of the semicolon. Alex Bean wants that key switched with the apostrophe key, which he argued is typed much more frequently. And Theodora Collins asked why the semicolon isn’t the shift option for the colon key instead of the other way around. “Most people don’t even know how to use [the semicolon] properly anyway,” she noted in suggesting the switch. (Cue outrage from programmers who type the semicolon often and don’t want to see it become a shift option.) 

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One truism that nearly all commenters realized soon after providing a tweak idea is this: No matter how seemingly useless or annoying a certain key is to you, someone somewhere will appear to speak of its eternal usefulness and to deem any notions of a change utterly foolish. The case of commenters David from North Hollywood and Heather Holland provides a fine example of this phenomenon. At first blush, David’s multistep suggestion seems completely reasonable: 1) move the braces (aka “squiggly brackets”) to the shift position on the “9” and “0” keys; 2) move square brackets up into the shift position previously taken by the braces; 3) move the parentheses from the shift keys in the number row to the spot currently held by the square brackets, thus reflecting the frequency with which people use parentheses relative to those other marks. The move would serve to banish the squiggly brackets and would provide a more prominent keyboard home for the parentheses. Heather’s response: “*giggles* You’re obviously not a programmer.” Thereafter, Heather expertly (and, to be fair, kindly) explained exactly how programmers use the squiggly and square brackets, noting that those keys on her board are “worn smooth from overuse.”

While caps-lock-loving commenters referred to me as everything from “snooty” to “nontechnical” to “a Mac user” for wanting to do away with that key for good, other readers focused on the exclamation point and questioned the desirability of any tweak that would make that mark easier to type. And, you know what, those people are right. I agree with the gist of their argument wholeheartedly: Exclamation-point overuse is just as bad as caps-lock overuse. I don’t like that the exclamation point is located so far away from the period and question mark, and I still think it should be moved down to the bottom right of the keyboard. But making the exclamation point easier to type may not be the best idea. So if we’re moving it down there, let’s make it the shift option for the question mark instead of vice versa, as several commenters suggested.

Commenter D-volt may have an even better idea for the exclamation point, which he or she referred to as “the most overused punctuation of all time.” D-volt would like to make it nearly impossible to type and suggested relegating the exclamation point to an obscure control-option-shift combo “or something equally cumbersome.” Jebbiii takes that sentiment one step further: “[M]aybe make someone wait 10 seconds between each click,” in order to preclude typists from using multiple exclamation points in a row.

Perhaps the most practical and innovative idea came from a commenter known as Livedarklions, and it just might be a keyboard change we can all get behind, regardless of profession or predilection. Livedark envisioned some sort of Jetsons-age collaboration between Compaq and Keurig. “I want a button,” the commenter wrote, “that makes coffee.”

Matthew J.X. Malady is Slate’s Good Word columnist. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

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