Computers are great for getting things done. Unfortunately, as is the case with many tools, computing can take up a lot of time and energy. This is why automation software is heroic; it steps in and elbows inefficiency out of the way!
Because professors spend a good deal of their time writing, editing, and grading papers, text automation and expansion tools are particularly useful. Boiled down to its essence, text automation and expansion makes it possible for a writer to type a short snippet of text to generate a longer, predefined text. With powerful “text expanders,” such as PhraseExpress, it is possible to work quickly without sacrificing quality. Not only can you save on time and energy, but you might also save money on your carpal tunnel medical bills!
Text Expansion Software Options
Choosing the best text expansion software comes down to price and the functions needed. Listed below are some common options:
PhraseExpress (Windows) – FREE
- Pros: Free for personal use; powerful macros
- Cons: Clunky interface; some functions are unstable
Texter (Windows) – FREE
- Pros: Free; Simple to use
- Cons: Lacks advance macros/scripting
Breevy (Windows) – $34.95
- Pros: Similar to PhraseExpress; easy to use and stable; advanced scripting
- Cons: Paid
TextExpander (Mac) – $34.95
- Pros: Simple for basic tasks; powerful scripting
- Cons: Paid; advanced functions require AppleScript knowledge
This article focuses on PhraseExpress because it offers the best of both worlds – free and powerful. Texter is also free but less powerful. If time is more important to you than money, Breezy offers functions similar to PhraseExpress but is less clunky.
Getting Started With PhraseExpress
The core principle of text expanders is a snippet or autotext – defined as the short keyword you type anywhere on your computer to run a phrase or macro. For example, you might set the abbreviation “agr” to expand as “Agreement error. Either your subject does not agree with your verb or your pronoun does not agree with its antecedent. For more information, visit: http://www.swarthmore.edu/writing/agreement-errors-0 .”
Once PhraseExpress is installed, it’s easy to get started. The video below (credits: Bartels Media GmbH) demonstrates a method for quickly saving phrases as you’re working.
Phrase Express Basics
PhraseExpress ships with many common auto-corrections built-in, with the ability to add more. Simply add phrases to the AutoCorrect folder for words and phrases you tend to get wrong. This is useful for hard-to-spell names, long words, or any phrase you often find yourself hitting the backspace when typing.
2. Grading Assignments
Think about how many mistakes are often repeated by students. For example, you may be typing “Citation needed” multiple times on every writing assignment. Phrases allow you to provide useful comments by providing more information and better detail to your students, all with a few keystrokes. As your phrases grow, you will start developing a series of easy-to-remember snippets that cover a wide range of topics. For example, you may use phrases that expand to writing rules or links to helpful resources, such as:
:frag >> “Careful! This sentence is a fragment. Can you figure out why? Refer to Purdue OWL at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/620/1/ for writing rules on sentence fragments.”
:pg55 >> “Please expand on your idea using concepts from this week’s module. Review pg. 55 in your textbook for more information.”
The possibilities move far beyond writing assignments. Phrases that involve specific projects, concepts, people, quotes, links or other relevant information may be created for any kind of work. A good way to get started is to begin adding phrases for 2 or 3 common responses each week.
3. Email Signatures
While most email clients or web apps give you the ability to save an email signature, you may find yourself editing your signature to omit or include information prior to sending an email. For example, you may think it’s best to remove the cell phone from your signature prior to replying to a sales email. PhraseExpress allows a quick way to attach the most relevant signature to any email. These phrases may also include any closing wording you use and can be triggered with a standard auto key. For example, #s1t might render a primary signature “s1” and “t” might render the words “Thank you.” The “#” might be reserved for all email actions.
4. Canned Emails
As with grading assignments, you may also find yourself sending the same response to students, colleagues, or coworkers. Setting phrases for common responses and utilizing macros can make replying to emails much less a chore.
Advanced PhraseExpress Functions
While basic phrase expansion is sure to save you plenty of time, the true power of PhraseExpress and similar software is the ability to create macros—or small programs triggered within a program. Macros may be added to any phrase by right clicking and selecting from the macro menu. Macros may also be nested and tied together to allow for any configuration or workflow you need. Listed below are a few common uses for macros:
1. Date and Time Functions
Macros also give you the ability to work with dates and times more efficiently. There are many configurations that can be applied to date macros, such as creating a variable to insert the full date for tomorrow. Another useful example is to set PhraseExpress to open a calendar that allows you to quickly insert the date and time as needed when running a phrase.
2. Streamline Your Email Use
A good portion of your time on a computer is probably spent within your email client. PhraseExpress offers many special functions that work within Outlook to make emailing quicker. Use the Macros >> Outlook menu to insert data, such as the name, email, or subject of the person you’re replying to. This is especially useful for canned emails.
Use the clipboard macro to insert copied text from the system clipboard. PhraseExpress also utilizes a built-in clipboard that caches the 20 most recent items copied. This is very useful when developing phrases, as text that needs to be inserted into a phrase can merely be copied prior to typing the Phrase hotkey. In my work, I frequently need to create a new user in a system and then send out an email with the login information. In PhraseExpress, I have a phrase that inserts the most recent and second most recent clipboard items into a canned email, such as the username and password. After creating the user in the external system, I copy the username and then the password, in that order. In Outlook, I type my hotkey, and the entire email is instantly built for me, including the new username, password, a salutation customized for the recipient, and my signature. I only need to click send and enjoy the 2-3 minutes I just saved.
PhraseExpress makes it easy to generate a document based on simple inline inputs. This is achieved by creating a form which accepts your predefined inputs. Forms make it very useful to generate text that requires some custom edits. Rather than generating a phrase and going back through the text to make edits, use forms to generate the content you require proactively. The video tutorial below (credits: Barrtels Media GmbH) demonstrates this concept very well.
The four functions above are just a few of the many helpful ways PhraseExpress can automate the way you interact with your keyboard. As you start using and learning the software, look into some of these additional functions:
- Simulate keypresses – Automatically press any combinations of buttons before, during, or after a phrase runs.
- External data – Insert content from files such as Excel sheets, Word documents, or web resources.
- Programming functions – Build some programming logic into your phrases using functions such as loops, variables, if/else checks, or other expressions.
- Record and playback mouse actions – In the vein of true automation, record commonly performed actions and automatically run with a hotkey or shortcut (not recommended if watching your mouse cursor move and click things without human interaction creeps you out).
It is best to do a little advanced planning with text expanders, as phrases proliferate quickly; you may end up having dozens (if not hundreds) of phrases in a relatively short period of time. To keep things organized, develop and stick to a shorthand system for recalling and invoking phrases. This saves you from remembering each phrase separately. Developing a system may take a little time, but it will eliminate confusion later on and save you time.
A common strategy is to use special characters such as hashtags (#), colons (:), and at-signs (@) to preface different categories of phrases. The autotext than can be the first few letters of the phrase or something representative, such as #ques for “Any questions, please let me know!” The best system is subjective (i.e., your system); use symbols and shorthand that make sense to you, so you can remember it easily later on.
You can download PhraseExpress (free of charge!) at: http://www.phraseexpress.com/download.php.
For further research on getting started with PhraseExpress (or any text expander), the following resources are recommended:
- Official PhraseExpress Documentation
- Make Use Of – 7 Awesome Uses For PhraseExpress Text Expander
- CogZest – The Value of TextExpander Snippet Conventions
- ProfHacker Blog – Text Expansion Articles
And, as always, visit with the specialists at the Teaching & Learning Center!