Increase your typing speed with an autocompleter

May 4th, 2007 by jose

Ok, I think this is a class-A hack. This may be one of the biggest timesavers I have found in recent years.

This might be obvious, but if you spend a lot of time writing, then any number of keystrokes that you save, as small as it might seem, will result in large time savings.

A word autocompleter is a program that learns what you type most often and suggests it in real time while you are writing. I’m still wondering why this kind of functionality doesn’t come with the OS, because it is really straightforward to implement and useful beyond words. Some of you who have used unix shells or text editor are used to completing words by just pressing a key (tab is my favorite). Well, guess what, you can have that anywhere, not only on the shell: you can have completion in a word processor while writing papers. Of course, it’s handy to fill textboxes in any browser and write emails.

Some may think that saving a few keystrokes is not necessary a big time saver and that they type fast enough. Well, believe me, you haven’t tried one of these programs!


The utility of such a tool is proportional to the average word length you type. Since we academics are known for abusing big words, well, we may get quite a lot of mileage.

There are two basic categories in this software category: those based on dictionaries and those based on hand-coded abbreviations. The latter is used often by medical and legal transcribers, who have to type long words and stereotyped sentences. The ones based on dictionaries actually learn the frequency you use each word, and use it for weighting the suggestions. These are the most interesting ones.


Intellicomplete is the program I’ve used the most. You let the program run in the background and it monitors and registers the words you are typing. When you type the first few letters of a word Intellicomplete knows, the suggestion window appear.

You can pick the top suggestion by pressing your favorite key (often, tab) and if the word you want is down the list, you can use the number keys. The suggestions box can follow the caret or stay put in a predefined location on the screen. I prefer the former, although rest assured that it’ll take a while before you get used to that little box being everywhere!

Of course, you can move the suggestion box out of the way (e.g., away from the main text) or you can let it follow the caret (default). Another option is to make it follow the mouse pointer.

A free, open-source one is letMeType. It has some advantages over intellicomplete: you can see the dictionaries as they are populated, and it is free. It is also unsupported (!), but at least the source is available.

Now, can I recommend intellicomplete? No. Why? Because it is abandoware. No new version since April 2004. No support whatsoever (noone answers mail). Still, it offers the best feature set. It is up to you to decide if it’s worth your money in its current state. Y

Training your word autocompleter

Autocompleters are highly customizable tools. You can set the maximum number of suggestions and their frequency, limit the suggestions to long words with a high probability, set the weighting, etc. The default settings are normally ok. This is an extra step for advanced users. The way autocomplete works, it will save you lots of time already without having to do any additional training. And of course, the extra-specific training may give you worse suggestions if the text you are writing is not related to the training corpus!

If you use an autocompleter for days, it will eventually pick up the words you use the most and the suggestions will improve. But this may be too little, too late.

The idea here is to train the autocompleter with a personal corpus (created out of your papers!). We assume here that you write about the same stuff you read :) , so use a bunch of papers that are representative of your taste.

Without further ado, here is the recipe to personalize your corpus fast.

(1) Export all pdfs to text. You can do this using batch mode in Acrobat, or some free tools.

(2) Separate the plain text dumps by letter, e.g., concatenate them (using cat them into a.txt, b.txt, etc

(3) Load them into letMeType or Intellicomplete.

If you type e.g., long molecule names, they will be high-probability suggestions.


An autocompleter is the single most useful tool you can use to speed up your writing. I have not quantified how much of an increase you can experience. But in general, you will find that your writing gets more fluid. You will be surprised that even the name of the scientists you cite more often are suggested.


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6 Responses to “Increase your typing speed with an autocompleter”

  1. shaneNo Gravatar Says:

    I use an autocompleter, but I mainly used for correcting typos, using the autocorrect features of MS Word and some common misspellings from wikipedia.
    You can however, add abbreviations for auto completion, e.g. I type sig in any program and it prints out my signature.
    Its freeware, and uses another great time saver, AutoHotKey:

  2. joseNo Gravatar Says:

    As an autohotkey lover, I had a phase in which I used it with a large collection of acronyms, i.e. ttyl = talk to you later. I didn’t know about this universal autocorrect.

    I think they are part of two different categories of software though. Maybe three: mispelling correction is the other one.

    The first category is the text expander, that has a limited amount of Acronym and abbreviation dictionaries. Often times they are ‘spoonfed’ by the user. I think the main advantage of these is that you can compress large sentences into a few keystrokes. Good for mail and chat, but not really for writing.

    The second category is the autocompleter per se: this grabs usage statistics and guesses what you write about. No spoon-feeding. All words are potential suggestions, not only the acronyms you typed in.

    Some text editors, like vim, actually use words in the same file/other open files to guess better what you really want (not intellicomplete though). This is what I consider gets you the best time savings.

  3. Matthew CornellNo Gravatar Says:

    Thanks for the review and suggestions. I really need the macro-expander functionality to reduce keystrokes. A while ago a company announced a *keyboard* that would do this. I wrote them at the time, but heard nothing back. I’ve always argued that this type of functionality needs to be in the OS – as it is, separate apps have to do this – firefox, word, etc.

    Appreciate the blog!

  4. Adrian ZaiNo Gravatar Says:

    This is interesting. I’ve never thought about using an autocompleter to write. I would like to give it a try. Does an equivalent software exists Macs?

    Great blog by the way! I’ve already picked up quite a few tips…

  5. JakobNo Gravatar Says:

    This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title . Thanks for informative article

  6. Academic Productivity » Speed up your writing with an autocompleter: Comfort typing Says:

    [...] May, 2007, we had a post on using an autocompleter to improve writing speed/save keystrokes. I recommended intellicomplete, even though it was abandonware even [...]

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