Any time-saving tricks that work in word processors are to be welcomed, and Google Docs recently added a new one, converting three hyphens into em dashes and two hyphens into en dashes automatically for you.
What you might not realize is that you can create your own text shortcuts, substitutions, and autocorrects like this very easily—not just in Google Docs, but in other word processors such as Microsoft Word and Apple Pages too. It can save you a substantial amount of time and effort once you know how.
We'll cover those three here, but the same feature is available in many alternatives as well. If you dig around in the settings, you'll find something similar.
If you have your own words or phrases you often misspell and want automatically corrected in Google Docs, you can make your own. These corrections will be applied as you type, so you can use a set combination of letters as shortcuts for something longer, as well, much like a built-in text expander. With a document open on the web, choose Tools, Preferences, and then Substitutions.
Make sure the Automatic Substitution box is checked, then scroll down to see the autocorrections that Google Docs takes care of by default—you can deselect any that you don't want to be applied. You can also remove substitutions completely using the small x icons on the right of the list.
To create your own autocorrection or replacement, for an em dash or anything else, use the Replace and With boxes. As soon as both fields are filled out, your substitution gets added to the top of the list, where it can be edited or deleted as required. When you're happy with the way the list is looking, click OK.
Google Docs is now smart enough to replace a lot of common spelling mistakes without you doing anything: You'll see the replacement word appear with the correct spelling, and a dashed underline to mark the alteration. If Google Docs gets one of these wrong for whatever reason, click on the word and choose Undo.
In Microsoft Word, you can configure autocorrections on Windows by going to File, Options, and Proofing. Here you'll find a host of different options covering spelling and grammar checking, support for custom dictionaries, readability statistics for your document, and more.
We want autocorrections that are made while typing, so click the AutoCorrect Options button. Some options, including replacing straight quotes with smart quotes and turning two hyphens into an em dash, can be found under the AutoFormat As You Type box, so edit these as necessary.
Switch to the AutoCorrect tab for more text replacements that happen as you type them out—here you can enable or disable corrections for two initial capitals and capitalizations for the start of sentences. There are checkmarks you can enable or disable, with the Exceptions button there if you want to disable autocorrect with certain words or phrases.
You can create your own autocorrections by checking the Replace Text As You Type box, entering your autocorrection underneath, and then clicking Add. You'll see that Word gives you a few to get started, which are mostly corrections for common spelling mistakes, but you can use the feature however you like. The options are in a slightly different place on macOS: You need to pick Word, Preferences, and then AutoCorrect to find them.
Apple's default word processor, included with macOS, can be customized this way as well. With a document open, choose Pages, Preferences, and Auto-Correction. From this dialog you can turn automatic spelling corrections and certain formatting corrections (like lists) on or off.
At the bottom of the dialog box, you'll find a short list of automatic replacements that come as defaults in Pages. They mostly cover symbols, so writing out "(C)" in the word processor produces the actual copyright symbol. Use the – (minus) button to remove any that you don't want to use.
To add your own, check the Symbol and Text Substitution box, then use the + (plus) button to create the autocorrection. The substitution shortcut is automatically added to the list as you type it, and will be applied as you type in documents in Pages.
Pages actually handles smart dashes—that is, replacing two hyphens with an em dash—in a different part of the program. Choose Edit, Substitutions, and then Show Substitutions to see all the autocorrections that are included (including smart dashes and smart quotes), and to enable or disable them.
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