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Solving keyboard and dictionary language problems

written by: John Lister•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 9/17/2008

The different settings for British and American English can cause confusion in both the keyboard layouts on Windows and the spellcheck in Word. Here's how to solve such problems and make sure your computer behaves the way you want it to when it comes to language.

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    The playwright George Bernard Shaw once described England and America as two nations divided by a common language. That’s certainly true in Windows, which offers separate keyboard and language settings for the two forms of English. While these options can be useful, they can often lead to great confusion when a computer appears to be on the wrong setting.

    There are two main differences: the keyboard layout and the language used in the dictionary.

    Windows uses two main keyboard layouts for the English language. While they are officially labelled ‘American English’ and ‘British English’, users in other English-speaking countries have their particular preferences.

    The major difference is that the American English keyboard doesn’t have the currency symbols for the British pound or the Euro. The knock-on effect is that the quotation mark, ‘at’ sign (@), tilde (~) and hash/pound symbol (#) appear on different keys in the two set-ups.

    This can cause problems in two ways. First, some countries use British English but keyboards are generally sold with the American English system. Secondly, it’s quite common for a computer user to accidentally wind up with the wrong option set, for example after installing a new keyboard connected to a USB port.

    The official way to change these settings is to go into the Control Panel and then choose  Regional and Language Options. From here you should be able to choose which layout you want to use.

    However, this doesn’t always work, particularly when you have a USB keyboard. In these situations, you should be able to automatically switch between the two layouts simply by pressing the ALT and Shift keys together. (People pressing these keys together by mistake may explain many seemingly random changes between keyboard layouts!)

    The other big issue with language is the dictionary settings in Microsoft Word. This affects whether the spellcheck considers your words to be correct or not and can be incredibly frustrating when set to the wrong option.

    In theory, you can change the language used by running a spellcheck (F7) and changing the option at the bottom of the spellcheck window itself. Unfortunately this often refuses to stick and reverts to the previous option the next time you run Word.

    If this happens to you, one solution is to use the Windows Language toolbar. This is installed by default with many speech recognition packages.

    If you want to add it manually, then in XP you need to go into the Control Panel’s Regional and Language Settings option, then choose the Languages tab, Text services and input languages, Details, Preferences, Language Bar and finally tick the ‘Show the Language bar on the desktop’ box. You’ll then be able to switch between British and American languages from the bottom of your screen (though confusingly both options will appear as ‘EN’!)

    If you’re using Vista, things are much simpler. All you need to do is right-click the taskbar, point to Toolbars and click on Language Bar. In Vista, the Language Bar lets you independently set both the keyboard layout and the dictionary language.

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