Why do I get question marks instead of text on Mac?

It’s frustrating when you suddenly start seeing question marks or boxes instead of normal text on your Mac. This is a common problem that many Mac users experience at some point, where text is mysteriously replaced by symbols, making documents and apps difficult or impossible to read.

There are a variety of potential causes for this issue, ranging from simple font problems to more complex software bugs and incompatibilities. However, the good news is that in most cases, the problem can be resolved with some basic troubleshooting and tweaking of settings.

In this guide, we’ll dive into the possible reasons you may encounter question marks instead of text on a Mac. We’ll also provide some steps to diagnose the root cause in your case, along with solutions you can try to fix the issue for good. Our goal is to help you get your Mac back to properly displaying text as soon as possible.

Possible Causes

There are a few common causes that could lead to question marks appearing instead of text on a Mac:

Font Issues

Problems with fonts are one of the most frequent reasons behind this error. Corrupted, damaged, or missing fonts can prevent text from displaying properly. Resetting the Mac’s font cache can often resolve font issues. The app Font Book has options to reset and rebuild the font database Boxed question marks instead of text.

Keyboard Setup

The keyboard input source or layout on a Mac may get switched incorrectly, leading to the wrong characters appearing. Going to System Preferences > Keyboard and checking that the correct input source is selected can fix this Mac Showing Question Marks Instead of Fonts.

Character Encoding

Applications use character encodings to map text to the correct font glyphs. If the encoding gets mismatched between an app and font, substitution characters like question marks may display. Changing the encoding in app settings may resolve this.

Font Issues

One common cause of question marks appearing instead of text on a Mac is font corruption or missing fonts. The Mac operating system relies on fonts to display text properly. If a font becomes corrupted or goes missing, the Mac will not be able to display the characters and will show a question mark instead.

This often happens after an OS update or software installation where font files get moved, overwritten or deleted. It can also occur if certain font files become corrupted over time. When the Mac tries to display text using that font, it can’t find the font file or the file is damaged, so it substitutes a question mark glyph instead.

Resetting the font cache or reinstalling the problematic fonts can often resolve this type of issue, restoring the ability to view text correctly. However, font problems can sometimes be tricky to diagnose, as they may only affect certain applications.

For more details, see this help article on troubleshooting font issues that cause question marks on a Mac.

Keyboard Setup

One common cause of question marks appearing instead of normal text is having the wrong keyboard input source selected in your Mac’s settings [1]. The keyboard input source controls the character mapping between keys pressed on your keyboard and the characters that appear on screen. If it is set incorrectly, pressing keys will produce unexpected characters like question marks.

To check your keyboard input source on a Mac, go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Input Sources. Make sure the correct language and keyboard layout is selected based on your physical keyboard. For example, a U.S. keyboard would require the U.S. English keyboard layout to be chosen. If the wrong input source is picked, such as a Dvorak layout when you have a QWERTY keyboard, pressing keys will not output the expected characters [2]. Setting the proper input source for your keyboard will resolve the issue.

Keyboard input source mismatches commonly occur after adding keyboards for different languages. Make sure only the source matching your physical keyboard is enabled to avoid question marks substituting letters. If issues persist, check for third-party keyboard apps interfering with system settings.

Character Encoding

One common cause of question marks appearing instead of text on Mac is a character encoding mismatch. Encoding refers to how text is translated into the bits and bytes that computers understand. The most common encoding on modern systems is UTF-8, which supports most languages and characters worldwide. However, older encodings like Latin-1 are still sometimes used.

If a document or webpage is created using Latin-1 but your Mac expects UTF-8, it will show question marks or other nonsense characters instead of the intended text. According to an Apple community thread, this encoding mismatch is a likely culprit when you see a black diamond with a question mark, indicating an illegal character.

To properly display text, the encoding used to create it needs to match the encoding your Mac’s OS and apps expect. To avoid issues, using UTF-8 universally is recommended. You can check your Mac’s default encoding in System Preferences > Keyboard > Input Sources, and applications often have encoding settings as well.

Application Specific Issues

Certain applications like Microsoft Office or web browsers may display question marks instead of text due to having separate character encoding settings from your Mac’s system preferences. For example, one user reported this issue occurring in Outlook emails and Safari/Chrome web pages (source).

In Outlook, this can happen when an email is drafted on a Windows machine using a font not installed on your Mac. Outlook for Mac defaults to Apple’s Helvetica as a substitute font, displaying boxes and question marks for the missing fonts (source).

For web browsers like Safari and Chrome, the issue may arise from websites using a different character encoding than your Mac’s preferences. You may be able to resolve it by changing the encoding type in the browser settings.

Checking the character encoding settings in any problem applications and matching them to your Mac’s system-wide preferences can help resolve question marks appearing in specific apps.

Diagnosing the Issue

There are a few steps you can take to diagnose the root cause of question marks appearing instead of text on your Mac:

First, try the issue in different applications like Safari, Chrome, TextEdit, Pages, etc to see if it’s isolated to one app or happening system-wide. This can help narrow down whether it’s an application-specific problem or something at the system level.1

Next, test different fonts and keyboards to rule those out as potential causes. Open Font Book to preview different fonts, and switch between built-in and external keyboards if possible.

Also try changing character encodings in individual applications. For example in TextEdit go to Format > Encoding and try Unicode (UTF-8).

Finally, create a new user account on your Mac and see if the issue persists there. This verifies if it’s related to system files or your personal settings and installed applications.

Taking methodical steps to test different software and hardware configurations will help pinpoint what factors trigger the missing text issue on your particular Mac.


There are a few potential solutions to try if you are seeing question marks instead of text on your Mac:

If the issue seems to be related to font corruption, you can try resetting your fonts in Font Book. Open Font Book, go to the menu bar and select Font Book > Reset Fonts. This will restore your font cache and clear out any corrupted fonts [1].

If keyboard/input settings seem to be the culprit, go to System Preferences > Keyboard and adjust your input source settings. Make sure the correct keyboard layout is selected. You may need to add the proper language or keyboard layout if it is missing [2].

For issues in specific applications, you may need to adjust character encoding settings. In app’s like Chrome, go to Settings > Advanced > Web Content and adjust the text encoding. Set it to Unicode UTF-8 for maximum compatibility [3].

Repairing disk permissions and verifying the disk in Disk Utility can also help resolve font and encoding issues. If the problem persists after trying the above solutions, consulting with an Apple technician may be necessary.

Preventative Measures

There are a few proactive steps you can take to avoid question marks appearing instead of text on your Mac:

Manage your fonts – Use the Font Book app on your Mac to review, disable, and remove any problematic or duplicate fonts that could be causing conflicts. Keeping your font library organized can prevent issues.

Back up font settings – Open Font Book, go to File > Export Font Collections to save backups of your font settings. This makes it easy to restore if fonts get corrupted.

Verify character encoding – Check that your applications and documents are using the proper text encoding, like Unicode UTF-8, to display special characters correctly.

Update software – Install the latest OS and application updates which often include bug fixes for font and text rendering issues.

Reset keyboard settings – Go to System Preferences > Keyboard and check if text replacement or input sources could be inadvertently replacing text.

Clear font caches – Fonts are cached for performance, but these caches can get corrupted. Clearing the caches forces macOS to rebuild them.

Use authorized fonts – Install fonts only from trusted sources and avoid pirated or corrupted fonts which can cause text issues.

When to Seek Help

If you have tried the various troubleshooting solutions provided but the issue with question marks persists, it may be time to seek professional help. Apple offers several options for users to get assistance with persistent technical issues on their Macs:

The Apple Genius Bar located within Apple retail stores allows you to book appointments to sit down one-on-one with an Apple Genius to diagnose and troubleshoot your issue. They can run diagnostics, test different configurations, and work hands-on with your Mac. If the Genius is unable to resolve the issue, they may suggest replacing hardware or other more complex solutions.

Calling Apple Support or starting a chat with them online are other official ways to get personalized assistance. Explain the ongoing issue with text showing as question marks, the troubleshooting steps already attempted, and any error messages received. They can walk through additional steps or setup mail-in repairs if needed.

For more extensive hardware issues, bringing your Mac to an Apple Authorized Service Provider may be necessary. These certified repair shops have the training and equipment to diagnose and replace any faulty components that may be causing text corruption issues.

Persisting display issues involving garbled text and symbols warrants professional diagnosis and repair. Don’t continue troubleshooting indefinitely without results. Leverage Apple’s support channels to get your Mac functioning normally again.