Using Text Expansion for Mobile E-mail

Blue postbox?!This week, I was at an event on faculty-student boundaries and expectations in the age of social media and smartphones. There were several interesting points of discussion–most people (students and faculty) seemed to agree that it’s a little weird for faculty to ‘friend’ students first; what variables go into “how quickly should someone respond to an e-mail,” etc. Inevitably, someone complained about writing. If students aren’t writing rude messages, they’re introducing all kinds of text-messaging shortcuts into a format like e-mail.

Students quickly pointed out, first, that lots of faculty have bad e-mail habits, too, and, second, the bluntness, shortcuts, and, second, typos and bluntness are often an artifact of typing on mobile devices. Everyone knows someone with an e-mail signature blames their typos on their phone, of course. And I had a friend in grad school who studied with a professor whose e-mail signature explained that she didn’t copyedit e-mail, because the whole point of it was to be fast.

Since mobile e-mail is here to stay, it stands to reason that we should try to make it better–and, fortunately, there is an easy way to incorporate some social lubrication into mobile e-mail without slowing yourself down or killing your thumbs: text expansion.

We’ve written about text expansion before at ProfHacker: Ryan described how comprehensively useful it can be, Ethan uses it for canned e-mail, and George uses it to respond to student writing.

There are a few options for text expansion on smartphones. Android users can try Textspansion, and iOS users can use the mobile version of TextExpander, which is probably the standard Mac-based app. (Bonus: TextExpander syncs with Dropbox, so you can have your snippets everywhere.) Both apps face a similar problem: There’s no way for them to be implemented as system-level services, so you either have to compose your text in that app, and then copy-and-paste it into an e-mail, or you have to depend on other application developers supporting the service. (If I understand things correctly, Textspansion doesn’t automatically open snippets–you have to search for them.)

Apps like TextExpander and Textspansion are immensely helpful, but there is a simpler way. Apple’s new iOS software update includes basic text expansion as a new feature, and it’s kind of addictive. In your iDevice’s Settings app, tap on General, then Keyboard. You’ll see a section called “Shortcuts.” The people at Addictive Tips have made a video that shows how it works:

As a southerner, I believe very strongly that phrases like “Thanks for this message” should be a standard part of e-mail etiquette–but I also believe that typing “tftm” makes it a lot easier. And what’s nice about this update is that, since Apple did it, it’s a service that’s available more or less anywhere you type.

It does need to be said that this new feature is *not* a replacement for proper text expansion apps. You can’t have multi-line snippets, for example, and there aren’t any formatting options. Also, these shortcuts don’t seem to sync over iCloud, so you’ll need to add them by hand to your various devices, if applicable.

All of which is just to say that there’s no reason to blame your phone for any lapses in etiquette! If you have handy shortcuts for writing quickly on a phone or other mobile device, why not share them in comments?

Photo Blue postbox?!” by Flickr user Andrew* / Creative Commons licensed

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