New (and Simple) Twists on Text Expansion

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One of the great things about writing for ProfHacker is that I get to learn about new tools from my fellow bloggers that end up saving me a lot of time. That’s been the case with text expansion software. In short, text expansion tools allow you to type small bits of text (a “snippet”) and have them automatically replaced automatically by pre-determined chunks of text. Instead of typing out an entire signature at the end of an email, in other words, I can just type “blc” and my standard signature gets dropped into the email.

If you’re still not clear about what text expansion does, you should read Ryan’s explanation of how to type smarter with text expansion. He covers the basics and some very common use cases for academics, including grading, responding to student and administrator requests, and even text markup. George expanded <rimshot> on Ryan’s original post a few months later by discussing how he used text expansion to respond to student writing. Ethan hypothesized about using text expansion for canned emails to common questions he gets. And Jason shared tips for using text expansion on mobile devices.

I appreciated all these tips and ended up purchasing TextExpander, which is one of many applications for the Mac. I dutifully created some snippets for my signature and HTML markup, which helped me blog here and elsewhere. I also used it to autocorrect some of my frequent typos, including those with my own name. (I’ll never be “Brina” again.) But apart from these, text expansion didn’t really make a big impact on my workflow.

But last month everything changed and now I use text expansion on a daily basis. What happened? I read an two-year old article from Lifehacker about text expansion. Like Ryan’s post, it explains the basics of these tools and lays out some use cases. It was these new use cases that helped me see that I could use it to replace even more commonly used bits of typing than I had done. For example, while I need to type my email signature regularly, it’s much more common for me to type my email address. A couple of snippets—:e for my personal and :m for my school addresses—and I never have to type either again.

Once I realized text expansion could cover not only the common academic uses in my life, but anything I type regularly, I came up with whole new uses:

  • My address (:ad). This has really helped when giving people our new address after we moved this summer.
  • Just my street address (:str). Since most web forms want the street address broken out from the city, etc., this has come in handy more times than I care to share.
  • My home page’s URL (:home). Again, this is handy for using with web forms.
  • My cell phone and home phone numbers (:cp and :hp, respectively).

When expanding a snippet, TextExpander (or any other comparable tool) can also pull in information from your computer’s clipboard. This has made it much easier for me to make my social networking pay using Amazon Associates. First, I copy the Amazon item number (ASIN) from Amazon. Then I type :am. The snippet expands with my affiliate link and completes the URL with the needed information.

There’s one other key in my expanding <double rim shot> use of text expansion. Previously, I was having to come up with convoluted abbreviations of words to make snippets work, since they need to be characters that one doesn’t regularly type. But by beginning with a punctuation mark, I was able to simplify the snippets, making them both shorter and more memorable. I chose a colon, but you could pick any character that is easy for you to type.

How do you use text expansion? What’s your most used snippet? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Otto’s Shrunken Head / The Eyes Of New York / CC BY-SA 2.0

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