U.S. Markets closed

How to Use the Handy Text Substitution Feature in Mac

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

You took the first step — buying technology. Now all you have to do is master it. We’re here to help, with tips and tricks you may have missed. If you know them already — well done, guru! But, if not, there’s no better time to start learning than right now.

Skill Level: Beginner 

The very useful Text Substitution feature autoreplaces one thing you type with something else. Why? Because it can do any of these things:

1. Insert the proper typographical symbols

For example, the Mac can insert attractive “curly quotes” automatically as you type “straight ones,” or em dashes—like this—when you type two hyphens (-- like that). It can also insert properly typeset fractions (like ½) when you type “1/2.”

You can see the list of built-in substitutions—and create your own—in the System Preferences > Keyboard > Text tab, as shown in the figure below.

Apple doesn’t want to drive you nuts, though, so it makes sure you’re sure you really want these swappings to take place. So you have to turn on each of these features manually, in each program. (These commands are available anywhere you do a lot of typing, like TextEdit, Mail, and Stickies.)

Auto-quotes. To make the quotes curlify themselves, choose Edit > Substitutions > Smart Quotes, so that a checkmark appears. 

Auto-dashes. To turn double hyphens into these (—) long dashes, choose Edit > Substitutions > Smart Dashes, so that a checkmark appears. 

Smart links. There’s also an option to create smart links, where any Web address you type turns into a blue, underlined, clickable link to a Web page. Turn on Edit > Substitutions > Smart Links

2. Replace abbreviations with much longer phrases

You can program “addr” to type your entire return address. Create two-letter abbreviations for big legal or technical words you have to type a lot. Set up “goaway” to type out a polite rejection letter for use in email. And so on.

This feature has been in Microsoft Office forever (called AutoCorrect), and it’s always been available as a shareware add-on (TypeIt4Me and TextExpander, for example). But now it’s built right into most Apple programs, plus any others that use Apple’s text-input plumbing.

You build your list of abbreviations in the System Preferences Keyboard > Text tab, shown in the above figure. See the list at left? Click the + button to create a new row in the scrolling table of substitutions.

Click in the left column and type the abbreviation you want (for example, “addr”). Click in the right column and type, or paste, the text you want OS X to type instead. 

Tip: Don’t be shy—you’re not limited to short snippets. The replacement text can be pages long, which is handy if you’re a lawyer and you build your contracts out of boilerplate chunks of canned text.

You can even create multiple paragraphs—but not by hitting Return when you want a new line; no, hitting Return means, “I’m finished entering this text” and closes up the box. Instead, press Option-Return when you want a paragraph break. 

Here again, you have to explicitly turn on the text-replacement feature in each program (TextEdit, Mail, Stickies, and so on). To do that, choose Edit > Substitutions > Text Replacement, so that a checkmark appears.

That’s it! Now, whenever you type one of the abbreviations you’ve set up, the Mac instantly replaces it with your substituted text. 

And not just the Mac, either; your abbreviations auto-sync to iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, and other Macs. If, that is, you’ve turned on System Preferences > iCloud > Documents & Data.


Excerpted with permission from David Pogue’s OS X Mavericks: The Missing Manual from O’Reilly Media.