Wonderful! System-wide iPad text expansion

“Frankly, I don’t know how I managed to overlook the power of this for so long!”

The Problem: Some characters cannot be typed on the iPad Keyboard!

I love the iPad for many reasons, but typing on it is like trying to pick up watermelon seeds. The biggest (not the only) issue I have with the iPad keyboard, is that there are some characters that you simply cannot type! It’s crazy! Try typing a © symbol, or a greek character like µ, and you simply can’t do it. Nor can you type subscripts. That’s right – NO SUBSCRIPTS! (can you sense my eyelid twitching?). As a biology teacher, I need to type subscripts!  (Apple, do you realise how hard it is to write about biochemistry when you can’t even type “H₂O”?!)  In my previous post, I discussed one work-around, using the Cymbol app, and that’s handy for one-off instances when you need to type something unusual.  But this is a MUCH better tip – especially for characters you need to type often.

The Solution: System-wide text expansion using Shortcuts

In my previous post, I mentioned TextExpander, which works well in the handful of apps that have incorporated it’s SDK.  In all others one needs to copy, switch apps and paste – a pretty clumsy workflow.  A much more elegant solution as I have discovered is using Shortcuts. Frankly, I don’t know how I managed to overlook the power of this for so long!

This doesn’t even require you to download an app!  iOS comes with a built-in customisable Shortcuts option in the Settings app (look in Settings > General > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Add New Shortcut). The most obvious use for this (and what it was intended for) is setting short abbreviations for longer messages.  If you are the sort who is often running late you can create a shortcut “omw” that when typed into a text message will expand to “I’m on my way” (So that you don’t make yourself even later, typing out the full message on the virtual keyboard, then editing it because it was changed to something ridiculous by autocorrect).   BUT, and here is what I’m excited about,  that expanded Phrase in Shortcuts can be anything you’d like it to be.  It can be a whole essay or just a single Greek character!

Simply go to the Shortcuts section in Preferences, and type (or paste) the character or expanded text you want to appear into the “Phrase” field.  Then type your desired abbreviation into the Shortcut field.  Tap ‘Save’. That’s it.Untitled-14.jpg

For example, if I want to be able to type C₆H₁₂O₆, I paste that chemical formula into the “Phrase” field, and then type the shortcut “gglucose” into the Shortcut field. (see image). Strangely, even though you can’t type these things on an iPad, if you copy and paste them, subscripts, superscripts and special characters are maintained and work just fine. The trick here, is to create all the “Phrases” on your computer, then email them to yourself, open the email on your iPad and copy and paste them into the “Phrase” field of each Shortcut.

I make my Shortcuts a description of the result I want, with a double letter to begin with: “gglucose”, “ccarbondioxide”, “ccopyright”, “mmicroL”. Then when I want “5 µL”, I simply type “5 mmicroL”. This text expansion works system-wide, and is synced accross all my iOS devices automatically via iCloud.

If you are a science teacher, this is cause for rejoicing!  But for everyone else, it’s also useful for common replies you make to emails or other oft-typed tidbits of information. If, for example, I get an invitation to a school for a date on which I already have a booking, I type “ddateclash” and it expands to:

Thank you for the invitation.  I would have loved to present at your college.  Unfortunately I do not have that date available due to a prior booking. I do hope that your Professional Learning day is a great success, regardless.
Sincerely, Andrew

If someone emails to ask me for a photo of myself, I can reply with “pphotoofme” and it expands to http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4495191/PhotoOfAndrewDouch.jpg – the download link for a head and shoulders photo of me in my dropbox public folder.

What a time saver!  The half hour I invested in creating my shortcuts, will be paid back to me with interest before the month’s end.

7 thoughts on “Wonderful! System-wide iPad text expansion

  1. Thanks for the tips on using Shortcuts- but how do you cope without arrow navigation keys? Is there a fix that i don’t know about?

  2. This is a comment that came to me by email which I think is worth posting here:

    Thanks for the post about using shortcuts to insert special characters on an iPad, Andrew. For Greek characters, did you know you could install a Greek alternative keyboard on your iPad? Go into Preferences – General – Keyboards and install the keyboard from there. You can then switch keyboards by holdong your finger on the globe key near the bottom left of the standard keyboard. It might be worth posting that tip as an update to your original blog post.


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