30 March 2008

#64. Making Much From Little: Text Expanders

Managing the Tool Bar & Grill requires lots of hard work and long hours. So a lazy guy like me looks for anything that makes the work go by faster and easier. That’s how I became a utilities maven to begin with, long before there was a Tool Bar & Grill. And the wonderfully generous programmers who populate the Internet keep coming up with new ways to make our lives more pleasant. Special guest blogger Mark Lautman probably is lazy too, but still industrious enough to try out equation editors for our benefit (see below).

Spill Your Heart Out Faster

Over the years, my favorite time- and finger-savers have included typing expanders. These programs make lots of text out of very little. I first discovered these utilities about 25 years ago, way back when I bought a simple program called Jot! (if memory serves me) that spilled out whatever text string I attached to an abbreviation. For example, I specified in Jot! that when I typed “jlp” followed by a space, punctuation, or Enter, it should replace those letters with my full name.

Over the intervening years, I have used a number of text expanders. Many of you enjoy the same function in Microsoft Office through AutoCorrect (which corrects your typing automatically when you insert a space, punctuation mark, or Enter) and AutoText (which requires a key press). (In Word 2007, these functions have transmogrified into “Building Blocks” under “Quick Parts.”) No doubt you have missed this delightful functionality in your plain-text editor, Web browser, instant messenger, and other programs.

PhraseExpress is the best text expander I have seen, and version 5 was recently released. It is the Swiss army knife of its genre, providing a variety of time-saving functions in addition to expanding your abbreviations in any Windows application.

I have previously recommended PhraseExpress, and you can read my description of that earlier version in post #24. The new version 5 is even better.

To start with, PhraseExpress offers to import your existing MS Office AutoCorrect and AutoText entries. It also offers to turn off these features in Word so an abbreviation won’t be expanded twice. PhraseExpress also comes with its own libraries of common phrases and misspellings, and more can be downloaded from its Web site. You can organize phrases in a hierarchical folder tree.

Among its extended functions, PhraseExpress can string multiple phrases together, accept input manually or from the clipboard, add dynamic values (such as the date or time), and can launch programs or open Web sites from abbreviations. It provides a wide range of automation macros, too, and is highly configurable. PhraseExpress also maintains a clipboard cache, though I still recommend ArsClip for that purpose. Here’s how the main phrase management window looks:

PhraseExpress works with all Windows versions, including Vista. It is free for personal use, and there lies my main complaint. The Web site says that “PhraseExpress recognizes if you are using phrases belonging to commercial activities without a valid license.” I don’t know what those phrases are, but while using a previous version, PhraseExpress started nagging me that I appeared to be using it for commercial purposes and should buy a license. My main use is for writing these blog posts, and I can assure you that this is very far from being a commercial venture! (A commercial license costs $39.95 until March 31, and $49.95 thereafter. There is a network version too.)

The free Lifehacker utility Texter is the best potential alternative to PhraseExpress. Though I have not yet tested it, Texter appears to be a fine text expander with some fancy scripting capabilities – but it lacks the breadth and depth of PhraseExpress’s functionality and usability, and does not import existing MS Office phrase libraries. I have found a number of other text expanders, but most look a bit primitive compared to PhraseExpress. Some macro scripting tools, such as AutoHotKey, also can expand text, but again without the bells and whistles.

If you use Linux, the only text expander I know of is Snippets, described in Lifehacker.

Try Titan Backup Business

Last week I offered five free licenses for Titan Business Backup, the network-capable version of my favorite shareware backup utility. I have not yet decided to whom to award these licenses, so you still have a few days to request one. Read post #63 for details, and then write to me!

Now let’s see what treats Mark has for the math whizzes and wannabes among us.

Let's Do the Math

by Mark Lautman

"You're still here?"

This was how one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century greeted me after reviewing my first-semester grades at graduate school. That comment didn't deter me; I completed a degree in applied mathematics with only modest neural damage. Nevertheless, he did me a great injustice by allowing me to continue. He should have said, “Listen, math isn't your strong point. Personal computers are the next big thing. Why don't you program an operating system for them? You could call it ‘MS-DOS.’”

Regardless, I've always been fascinated by mathematical equations – wondering what they really mean (like my telephone bills). If you do technical work on computers, you've no doubt come across the need to compose equations. In this post we'll go through some of the available software.

The big word processors, Microsoft Word and OpenOffice, have their own integrated equation editors. Both make it easy to insert an equation into text, and to insert cross-references to the equation (such as "See equation 1.1"). OpenOffice Formula has an advantage in that you can also type equations in a composition window, which avoids the large number of clicks with a graphical editor (although it requires a true mathematician to decipher OO's cross-referencing capability).

A much more intuitive equation editor is MathCast (Windows). This is one of those utilities that is so good I wonder why it's free. It's very easy to use. The Fourier Transform in the illustration above took me half the time using MathCast compared to OpenOffice Formula, and that included learning how to use the software!

Some web browsers can display equations as text, not just graphics. The World Wide Web Consortium has a specification for composing equations using XML. You can compose the equations with a text editor, or export them from a utility such as MathCast.

The advantage to this approach is that when a user increases or decreases the size of the text, the equation scales accordingly.

LaTex isn't a utility – it's all of eternity. LaTex was one of the first successful publishing products to separate content from formatting, and provides the most comprehensive features for creating technical manuscripts. Marking up for LaTex can be difficult, and there are many online and free utilities to help you compose the equations and then paste the resulting LaTex statements into your project. The Hamline University Physics Department has an online Latex equation editor for just this purpose.

Another free utility is TeXaide (Windows), which is a point-and-click editor. When you copy the graphical equation, the programs pushes the text-based representation into the clipboard, which you can paste into a LaTex project. —Mark Lautman

That wraps up another long, hard day for the lazy staff of Jonathan's Tool Bar & Grill. We hope you have enjoyed the fruits of our labors, and will drop in every week for more. Don’t forget to tell all your friends about us too, and to visit our advertisers. And please feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.


  1. Question really. Do you think this would work with Stedman's Spell check dictionary? Does it work in Word 2007 as the only other expander I like the looks of does not because of mass changes in Word 2007. Thanks

  2. Dear Anonymous: Thank you for visiting my blog, and for writing in. Sorry I can't answer your first question adequately, as I am not familiar with Stedman's Spell Check dictionary (is this a medical dictionary?). All I can suggest is to try Phrase Express out and see if it works; it costs you nothing to try. I can tell you that PhraseExpress does work with and coexist well with Word 2007.