Great Questions I: Save Your Fingers


One of the suggested uses for this blog is to highlight great questions and answers. I’m proposing the following question for a Great Question. (I’m linking to it early in case you get bored with the blog post and just want to look at the question.)

Good keyboard layouts for typing (La)TeX

To encourage you to look at that, let me first divulge my reason why I consider that a Great Question (and no, it’s not because I answered it). I don’t intend to be prescriptive about what a Great Question is, but certainly one good indicator is that it is a question that you should read even if you don’t know that you should read it. What I mean by that is that this question is probably one that you would pass in the street if you came upon it, but that once you’ve actually read it you will (I hope) think, “I wish I’d read that years ago!”.

The rest of this post is for those of you who want a little more reason for reading it, or who having read it don’t quite get what I’m making all the fuss about.

The Unexpected

It’s not just because he’s Norwegian that I love Roald Dahl’s stories. Nor just the fact that he wrote children’s books of such a calibre that I can read them to my children and enjoy them myself1 . He also wrote some very inventive other stories, published in a collection called Tales of the Unexpected (and the obvious follow-up).

One of these, Man from the South2 , concerns a man who likes to gamble. He offers a very nice prize for his bet, a luxury car, and the bet looks like a sure thing: can a young man light his lighter ten times in a row without it failing; this to be carried out indoors so no danger of cross-winds. But the stake is very high: if the young man loses the bet he must lose his little finger. The Man from the South argues that the young man’s little finger isn’t all that important to him, particularly compared to a car. After some persuasion, the young man agrees and the wager begins. I shan’t reveal the twist (don’t click on the wikipedia link above if you don’t want to know it), read the story for yourself for that.


What I want to say is that for someone like me, that argument is a load of fetid dingos kidneys (to use a phrase from another author that I enjoy reading). My little fingers are extremely important to me and I wouldn’t be loath to lose one. Why? Because my little fingers actually do more than their fair share when I’m typing a document. Take a look at your keyboard right now. Think about a typical TeX document. Which keys do you think get used most? Which fingers are involved in typing those keys? How much work do those fingers do?

Now, of course, if you’re a two-finger-typist, then the answer to the second question is “The two pointer fingers” and there’s not much I have to say to you. But even if you’re not a professional typist, you probably use some half-baked system of typing that, while it would offend a purist, is a bit more complicated than the two-fingered variety. And it may not involve the little fingers, but what I have to say applies just as much to the other fingers, it’s just more noticeable in the little fingers.

The Science

Let’s make this scientific3 . I’ve taken one of my articles and counted how many characters would involve the little finger (my keyboard is a Norwegian one, by the way, which puts a few characters in different places to make space for the extra letters). In a document of 119316 characters, I get 33421. That’s 28%, or almost 2/7ths. My thumbs, for comparison, got 17504 characters, or only 15%. Considering the evolutionary advantage that thumbs are meant to be, compared to little fingers, that’s a sizeable difference.

But that’s not the whole story as it’s not just the number but the location of these keys that matters. Most of those keys that the little finger presses requires some movement from the “home” key, more than the other keys require of the other fingers. Look again at your keyboard. Where is the backslash character? Anywhere useful? I didn’t think so!

In conclusion, the stress that the little fingers endure is heavy, and out of proportion to what might be expected, given their use in other walks of life. This stress can lead to medical complications, namely RSI. And that’s not good.

Fortunately, keyboards are very malleable things (and I don’t mean prising the keys off). And that’s what this Great Question is about: how to save your fingers for something really important.

Because you never know when you might meet a Man from the South and decide that you really do want that luxury car after all.

  1. If you have children, you’ll know what I mean. 
  2. Warning: contains spoilers 
  3. Not too scientific, these numbers are meant as guides; my scripts for generating them may be subject to error. 

5 thoughts

  1. I’m honored to have asked the first “Great Question”. Do I get a badge for that? 😉

    There are many interesting answers to that questions; yours of course being the most detailed. In the end, I ended up using the Neo keyboard layout together with


    . While my little fingers probably have even more to do now than before (because of all the modifiers), they have to press keys in more easily accessible positions (at least on a German keyboard — the US keyboard has two physical differences to the German one and both are crucial for Neo; I had to have my parent ship me a keyboard). Together with the more sensible display of math symbols and Greek letters this has made typing and editing TeX files a lot easier.

  2. I’m pretty used to the standard qwerty layout. I think changing things would probably confuse me a bunch. Being an emacs user, I get thoroughly confused when typing in, say, firefox and C-p opens up a print dialog instead of going to the previous line. So if I compounded that with changing keyboard layout, I might just explode.

    That said, the swapping numbers and symbols thing is neat.

    Also, mapping Caps Lock to be another Ctrl is a good idea for emacs. (Since M-u uppercases a word, and C-x C-u uppercases a region, you don’t need caps lock anyway)

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