One minute Mac tip: Auto-complete, spellcheck, and search for definitions in Cocoa text fields

Without doubt, the most common use of computers today is to create written content of some kind. Blogs are an obvious example, but written content can take a number of forms. Writing manuscripts for publication is another example.

No matter what kind of writing you’re doing, using good tools to make your writing technically better is an incredibly handy thing. Letting the computers do the technical stuff—the stuff they’re good at—let’s you focus on the creative stuff: writing great content. Which is why, if you use a Mac, you’ll be happy to hear that any application’s text field let’s you do a number of really cool things (as long as it’s a Cocoa application, of course).

1. Auto-complete unfinished words

Try this out:

  1. Open TextEdit, from your /Applications directory. A new blank document will open.
  2. Type Hel and then press the ESC key. A drop-down menu will suddenly appear with an alphabetically sorted auto-complete list of suggestions, sourced from your computer’s current language dictionary. It looks like this: Mac OS X\'s native Cocoa framework allows for many applications to get \"auto-complete\" functionality for free.

This feature works with both Pages and, for those of you still using it for some reason (I know you’re out there), TextEdit, too. Also, if you’re a developer and a writer as well (like I am), you’ll be happy to hear that this feature also works with Xcode‘s Code Sense feature, and suggests completions for variable, function, class, and method names in your code.

2. Spellcheck as you type

A Cocoa text input field also has a number of other tricks up its sleeve. For instance, in many applications you can elect to turn on the “Check spelling as you type” feature, which will cause words you misspell (words not in the computer’s dictionary) to appear with a dotted red underline. If you right-click on these words, the contextual menu that appears will offer spelling corrections.

However, sometimes we use words like those in slang or colloquial language that isn’t in a proper dictionary. These words will still appear to be “misspelled” when you type, so in these cases, we can tell Mac OS X to “Learn Spelling” (also from the contextual menu). When you select this option, you append that spelling to your personal dictionary. (This is really just a plain-text file located at ~/Library/Spelling/lang file, where lang is the language code you’re typing in. For Enlgish, this file is ~/Library/Spelling/en.)

3. Look up word definitions and search for text in Google or Spotlight

Last, but certainly not least, another neat thing you can do with text on your Mac is look them up with Dictionary.app. Simply highlight some selectable text on screen, right-click and select “Look up in Dictionary”. This will cause Dictionary.app to open and display the definition of the selected word.

Since Dictionary.app can also look up articles in Wikipedia, this is also a very quick way to go to a Wikipedia article without ever having to open up a Web browser.

Also, from the very same menu, you can open a Web browser. Simply select “Search in Google” to cause your default Web browser to launch a Google search for the highlighted text.