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An Introduction to Text Expansion

How text expansion can save time and agony when typing.

April 2, 2015
 

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.

Do you find yourself typing the exact same phrase multiple times each day or sending nearly the identical email to various people? Do you make the same strange spelling mistake over and over? Do you get annoyed hunting for special characters for a word or phrase you type often?

Then text expansion may be the solution for you.

Text expansion is a bit like using keyboard shortcuts for cut and paste (Command/Control+V and Command/Control+C), except that with text expansion, you can set up particular abbreviations to be replaced by words, phrases, or entire paragraphs. For example, when I type ,gb , these three characters are replaced by the Greek letter β.

Setting Up Text Expansion

In its simplest form, you can set text expansion up in the System Preferences on a Mac by going to Keyboard > Text. Here, you simply add sets of characters or phrases to the “Replace” and “With” columns. In this case, you are limited to replacement of abbreviations with static text. By that I mean, you can set ,date to put in the day of your birthday, but it cannot do something smart, like replace ,date with today’s date. (Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a similar function in Windows. If there is a way, please do share it in the comments.)

If you want to get fancier with text expansion, you can invest in software like TextExpander (Mac), Breevy (Windows), PhraseExpander (Windows), or aText (Mac). These applications offer features like smart text expansion (e.g., today’s date). Some offer even more complex functions, like replacing an abbreviation with pages of text, with blanks and dropdown menus. This can be particularly useful if you have to write nearly the same email to multiple people, or if you have to enter data in a particular manner (see below).

LifeHacker has articles comparing the top text expansions software for Windows and Mac.

Uses For Text Expansion

Whether you go with simple computer settings, or invest in text expansion software, you can use this method nearly anywhere. Some places I’ve found text expansion particularly useful are:

  • Commonly misspelled words: Any word that I catch myself misspelling repeatedly in the same way is a situation for text expansion. I regularly type angiogenesis as agniogenesis, so I’ve set up text expansion to replace this typo with the correctly spelled word. Fluorescence is a word I use regularly and can never remember how to spell, so in this case ,flr gets replaced by the properly spelled word.
  • Date and time: Writing out today’s date is a very handy use for text expansion. I label files with today’s date followed by an underscore so that I can quickly sort out which version of something is the newest. I’ve set up text expansion to replace ymd with today’s date in the format YYYY-MM-DD (e.g., 2015-04-03).
  • Email signatures: Usually, I don’t put a signature on an email, so I don’t have it as the default setting in my email software. Instead, I made use of text expansion to input an email signature when I type a particular abbreviation.
  • Data entry/Sending emails: In the case where you are sending a form letter email, or if you need to type in data in the same manner each time, with the associated observations, you can use (fancier) text expander software to set up a template. You can even include drop down menus, for example if you are classifying something, or include fill-in-the-blanks spaces for names or brief notes you want.
  • Symbols: Setting up all the Greek letters as ,g + the corresponding Latin alphabet letter (e.g., ,ga for α, ,gb for β, etc.) has saved me hours of time hunting for these symbols in the menus in Word. I also have a shortcut ($e) for €, since I use a Canadian keyboard configuration, which lacks a € key.
  • Everywhere else: If you forget to capitalize the H in the middle of GradHacker, or you constantly have to look up the full name of your department, make an abbreviation for it, and be done with it.

A Word of Warning

Beware that your shortcut characters are not something you would ordinarily type. For example, for my address, I wouldn’t use the shortcut add because then my address would end up in the middle of sentences like “To this mixture, add 5 mL skim milk.” Instead, I would put a comma at the beginning of the abbreviation, and use the shortcut ,ad for my address. A period or semicolon can serve the same function, or some people choose to double the first letter of the shortcut (e.g., aad).

According to the statistics of my text expansion software, I’ve saved myself from typing 122,765 characters! Assuming I type 80 words per minute, I’ve saved 5.12 hours of pure typing just by expanding out a few characters into words or phrases!

What uses to do you have for text expansion?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Eye - the world through my I and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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