1. Computer Skills

How to Use Automation Apps to Quickly Type International Characters

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Read Time: 5 min

If you’re in the American or English bubble, it’s easy to think that the QWERTY keyboard is completely sufficient for everyone’s computer needs. It’s got all the letters and common punctuation marks there for you to use, right? Right. 

Except, there’s a problem; they’re only the letters and common punctuation marks for English. Even other languages that use the Latin characters, like German, French or Spanish, have a few more common symbols like the umlaut (ü), acute accent (á) and cedilla (ç) that don’t feature on the QWERTY keyboard.

Although they’re not directly on the keyboard, you can type any of these symbols on a Mac, but the process is slow and breaks your typing flow. To type a letter with an accent, hold down that letter key on the keyboard for about a second, then select the alternate letter, either with your mouse or by pressing the corresponding number key. 

adding otheradding otheradding other
Adding international characters.

This is fine if you’re only typing the occasional accented letter, but if you’ve need to type them on a daily basis this is going to get annoying fast. 

Another bad option is to get a regional keyboard. The AZERTY keyboard used in France makes accents much quicker to type (Shift-2 gets you an é for example), but then you’re stuck using an AZERTY keyboard. 

This works if you’re living in France, but if you’re anywhere that QWERTY is the standard, switching between AZERTY and QWERTY every time you need to use a different computer is really not that feasible. 

The AZERTY keyboard layout used in France. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The best solution is to use one of the great automation apps available for macOS. You can use either TextExpander or Keyboard Maestro depending on your exact needs.

TextExpander Public Snippet Groups

I'll begin by looking at TextExpander

The basics of TextExpander are that you type an abbreviation, say .pn, and it gets expanded into a Snippet, in this case it would probably be my phone number. I’ve covered TextExpander in a lot of depth before so if you’re completely unfamiliar with the app, check out my series on it starting with TextExpander: An Introduction.

Since I wrote those articles TextExpander has moved from a paid upgrade model to a subscription service. It now costs $40 a year or $4.16 a month. There’s a 30-day free trial so you can check it out before committing to a subscription. Sign up and download TextExpander before continuing. 

While the idea of paying monthly may turn you off the app, one of the new features they’ve introduced is Public Snippet Groups that solve the international character problem.

A Public Snippet Group is a collection of related snippets that someone has put together and made them available to other TextExpander users. They’re groups for things like common typos, Emoji and, critically for us, accented words and common typos in a few foreign languages.

To add a Public Group to TextExpander, head to the Public Groups page on TextExpander’s website, find the group you want and click Subscribe. I’m using Accented Words for this example.

public groupspublic groupspublic groups
There are lots of different Public Groups.

Click Subscribe to Group and it will automatically sync with the TextExpander app on the Mac.

accented wordsaccented wordsaccented words
Some of the accented words.

Now when you type a word that takes an accent without the accents, TextExpander automatically adds them. For example, if you type smorgasbord it's automatically be changed to smörgåsbord

The one problem with using TextExpander is that you’re limited to the words in a Public Group or the Snippets you add yourself. If you need to type the same collection of words over and over again, it works great, but if you need something more flexible we need to look elsewhere.

Make Your Own Text Expansion in Keyboard Maestro

Keyboard Maestro is my favourite Mac app. It’s able to automate pretty much any feature you want. Along with other instructors, I’ve covered it quite a lot here at Tuts+

If it’s new to you, the best place to start is with Keyboard Maestro I: Introduction. It’s $36 but it’s worth every penny. There’s also a free trial so you can check it out before buying.

One of the best features of Keyboard Maestro is that you can create keyboard shortcuts that can do almost anything, including insert text. I’ve covered how to do that before so read that before continuing if you’re not familiar with the app. 

I'll use the three accented French es—é, è and ê—as an example. I want to create a shortcut that I can quickly type that will insert the right accent. 

Open Keyboard Maestro and create a new Macro. Let’s call it é. 

new macronew macronew macro
The new macro.

Give it a new Typed String Trigger and enter ’e. Make sure Simulate 2 Deletes Before Executing is checked.

trigger addedtrigger addedtrigger added
The macro trigger.

Add a New Action and select Insert Text by Typing from the Text category. For the text you want to insert, add the accented e: é. 

the finished macrothe finished macrothe finished macro
The finished macro.

And that’s it. Now when you type ‘e it automatically gets replaced with é. Next, repeat the process for the other two es: I’d suggest using e’ for è and ‘e’ for ê

To finish, create similar shortcuts for the other special characters you need to type regularly. 

The big advantage of using Keyboard Maestro like this is it’s flexible. You can insert an accented letter or other symbol at any time with a few quick keystrokes. There’s no holding down letters so it doesn’t break your flow and you’re not relying on an incomplete wordlist. 

Wrapping Up

Both methods I’ve covered today have their place. TextExpander is quicker and easier to start with as long as there is a Public Group with the right Snippets. If there’s not, it will take you quite a while to build one up. 

Keyboard Maestro is much more flexible. You can quickly type the characters you need at any time. You could even build a huge wordlist if you wanted to, although it would take a lot of work.

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