A “text expander” autocorrects short combination of characters you type to longer phrases. They can be used anywhere in any operating system. For example, you could type “bbl” and have this always automatically expand to “I’ll be back later.”
This is especially useful on smartphones and tablets with touch keyboards, but it can also be used to save time on a laptop or desktop with a traditional keyboard. Similar features are now being built into more operating systems.
Why You Want a Text Expander
A “text expander” is a fancy name for a piece of software that automatically “expands” short combinations of characters you write to longer combinations of characters. It works a bit like autocorrect. For example, an obvious use of a text expander would be to automatically insert “Be back later!” when you type “bbl,” or “On my way!” when you type “omw.” This is especially useful on a smartphone or tablet where you’re working with a slower touch keyboard.
However, it could also be useful if you’re dealing with a physical keyboard. If you send a lot of similar emails, you could have it automatically insert entire paragraphs or multiple sets of paragraphs when you type a few characters — “para1,” for example.
It could also be used for many other purposes. For example, you could set up a shortcut “@@” that automatically expands to your full email address, allowing you to easily type it in any app on your smartphone. You could set up a shortcut “##” that would automatically expand to your phone number, one named “adr” that would automatically expand to your full mailing address, and more.
iPhone and iPad
This feature is built into iOS as “Shortcuts.” To access it, open the Settings app and navigate to General > Keyboards > Shortcuts.
Add as many shortcuts as you like here. A shortcut is a set of characters that expands to a longer phrase when you like. You can do a lot with this. After typing a shortcut, you have the ability to tap an X button to prevent it from being expanded. If you press Space or Enter, it will be automatically expanded.
Some Android keyboards may have built-in text expansion features, but everything you need is built into Android and will work with the “stock” Google Keyboard application. This makes use of the “Personal dictionary” feature included in Android.
To enable this, open Android’s Settings screen and then navigate to Language & input > Personal dictionary. Tap the + button and then enter a longer phrase as well as a shortcut. Whenever you type the shortcut characters anywhere in Android, it will expand to your longer phrase.
You’ll need a third-party text-expansion application to do this on a Windows PC. PhraseExpress is free for personal use and has been very well reviewed, so that’s a good one to start with. However, many other solutions are available.
With PhraseExpress, you’ll need to create a new phrase, name it, and enter your longer phrase in the “Phrase content” box. Enter a shortcut into the “Autotext” box and then save your phrase. By default, PhraseExpress will replace the phrase after you press Space or Enter, but you can also have it do so immediately after you type the autotext characters.
Mac OS X
This is helpfully integrated into Mac OS X, just as it is on iOS. In fact, any shortcuts you set up on iOS will even automatically synchronize to your Mac if you’re signed in with the same iCloud account on both devices.
To set this up, click the Apple menu and select System Preferences. Navigate to Keyboard > Text. Add any shortcuts you like here and they’ll automatically expand to the full phrase you choose whenever you type them in an application on your Mac.
This isn’t built-in on typical Linux desktop environments. Instead, we recommend the free AutoKey application. It will hopefully be included in your Linux distribution’s software repositories for easy installation. For example, AutoKey is available from Ubuntu’s software repositories and can be installed from the Ubuntu Software Center.
The key to using AutoKey for this is to create “phrases” (New > Phrase) and give them “abbreviations.” The abbreviation is the shortcut that expands to your full phrase. For example, by default AutoKey comes with a “Home Address” phrase set up that automatically expands the letters adr to a full address. You could enter your own address here and then type adr whenever you wanted to type your full address.
Chromebooks can use a text expander implemented as a Chrome browser extension. It will automatically expand text you type on web page form fields to the longer phrases you choose. Auto Text Expander is available in the Chrome Web Store, and works in exactly this way.
Install the expension and use its options to configure your desired shortcuts. Remember, these shortcuts will only be used on web pages you view in Chrome, not in other areas of the interface like the location bar.
This is just a snapshot of what’s currently available for various operating systems and devices you might be using. But text expansion shortcuts are here to stay, and you’ll probably be able to set them up in whatever operating system you’re using a decade from now. The key is knowing that they exist and what you can use them for.