For most of us, our writing is composed of numbers and letters interspersed with a dash of simple formatting to convey some semblance of meaning. On the other hand, if you’re writing about math or science, you’ll need more than the standard toolbox of bold, italic, and underline formatting tools most word processors provide on their default toolbars.
Even though superscripts and subscripts aren’t commonly used outside the realm of academic writing, most word-processing apps provide ways to format these characters. Microsoft Word and LibreOffice Writer have easy-to-use buttons in the toolbar. If you use Google Docs (preferably on one of our top Chromebook recommendations), you’ll have to do more clicking or learn a few keyboard shortcuts to get the same thing done.
Google Docs: keyboard shortcuts for apply sub- or superscript to a document
A keyboard shortcut is the quickest way to apply a superscript or a subscript in Google Docs in the browser app.
- On a PC or Chromebook, press Ctrl+. (Control and period) for a superscript and Ctrl+, (Control and comma) for a subscript.
- If you’re on a Mac, press ⌘+. (Command and period) for superscript and ⌘+, (Command and comma) for subscript.
There are two ways to use these shortcuts: before the fact and after the fact. Pressing Ctrl+. changes your active format to superscript. Anything you type after that will be in superscript. Press it again to return to your default formatting. If you want to change the format of the text that’s been typed, highlight the text you want to change, then press Ctrl+, to change it to subscript.
How to use Google Docs ribbon menu to apply super- and subscripts
If you don’t want to use the keyboard shortcuts, use the ribbon menu at the top of the window instead.
- Click Format from the menu at the top of the screen.
- Hover over Text from the drop-down menu, then select either superscript or subscript.
Changing the format via the menu works the same as using the shortcuts, just with a few extra steps.
Applying sub- and superscripts to mathematical equations in Google Docs
If you work with mathematical equations in Google Docs, getting a superscript or a subscript is slightly different.
- Click Insert from the top menu.
- Select Equation from the drop-down menu.
- Press Shift+6 to input a superscript character, or press Shift+– to input a subscript character.
Unlike working with text formatting, equation formatting must be selected before you input the characters. Once you’re done inputting superscript or subscript, press Enter to return to normal formatting.
Working with equations can be a hassle because of the many shortcuts and hotkeys needed to format everything correctly. If you frequently work with advanced equations, make your life easier by using an add-on like MathType.
Apply a Google Docs sub- or superscript using the Android or iOS mobile app
The process is a little different if you use Google Docs on your smartphone.
- Highlight the text you want to make superscript or subscript.
- Tap the Format button at the top of the screen. Then make sure you’re on the Text tab (it should be selected by default).
- Select the button for the formatting option you need.
Like on the browser, you can change the formatting to superscript and subscript before you type or afterward. To change the formatting before, place the cursor where you want to input the formatted text, then follow the procedure described above. When you’re done typing, select the Format button to return to normal.
Equations on mobile are a mixed bag. There’s no way to insert an equation via the mobile app. However, you can edit superscript and subscript values in an existing equation. Still, there’s no way to add formatted values to an existing equation via mobile.
If you don’t want to jump through any of these hoops, but still want to add that sweet academic veneer to your writing, Unicode has a full set of superscript and subscript numbers (and a limited set of letters and symbols) that you can copy and then paste into your document. Why would you use Unicode in place of Google Docs’ native formatting?
When Docs changes the text to superscript or subscript, it changes the appearance of the text, not the text itself. For example, in Unicode, 2 and ² are two different characters. If you tell Docs to change a “2” to superscript, it adds a hidden note that tells the browser to change how it looks. If you copy and paste a document containing formatted superscript to another program, it might not keep the formatting. Unicode doesn’t have this problem and is consistent across word processors and CMS systems.
Working with Unicode can be cumbersome. If the character you want isn’t on the keyboard, tracking it down can be tedious. If you need to use special characters regularly, add-ons like Fast Keyboard make finding and using these characters easier.
When will I ever need this?
Superscripts and subscripts are primarily used for academic and scientific writing, so you probably won’t need them. References and footnotes are often indicated by sequential numbers or letters in superscript. In formal writing, it’s common to spell an ordinal (first, second, third). In informal writing, it’s not uncommon to use shorthand (1st, 2nd, 3rd), and often the letter part of these mixed ordinals is rendered in superscript (1ˢᵗ, 2ⁿᵈ, 3ʳᵈ). Superscripts are also common in higher mathematics to express exponentiation (for example, E = mc² or a² + b² = c²).
Subscript tends to be a bit more niche, but has its uses. You’ll commonly see it used in chemical formulas like H₂0 or CO₂. Beyond chemistry, subscripts aren’t used very often. They pop up in physics, such as the symbols for subatomic particles (vₑ is an electron, for instance), and are used to denote the order in a sequence as in the Fibonacci Sequence (Fₙ = Fₙ₋₁ + Fₙ₋₂).
Look beyond Google Docs
If you regularly write or edit complex documents, Google Docs probably isn’t a good fit. If, however, you need a basic word processing app, Google Docs can’t be beat. If you or your company uses Gmail, you’ll want to check out our Google Workspace guide to get acquainted with all the free apps and features you can use online.