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The Secrets of the PAL (Part 2)

In my last PAL discussion with software architect Steve Colwell, he explained the nuances of TypeWell’s Personal Abbreviation List (PAL). I provided Steve with a list of my own PAL entries to get his analysis. I was surprised to find that certain words I had added were actually counter-productive.

Steve put my entries into eight basic categories:

  1. Prefix abbreviations (pers -> perspective, op -> opportunity, opp -> opposite, ind -> individual, em -> email, fig -> figure, ho -> homework, temp -> temperature, strats -> strategies, vol -> volume, evo -> evolution, fu -> function, kno -> knowledge)
  2. Short-word abbreviations (abl -> able, sx -> six);
  3. Turbo-like abbreviations (adtl -> additional, jess -> thesis);
  4. Ad-hoc oddballs (arl -> article, wx -> weather);
  5. Phrases and compound words (vr -> voice-recognition, sw -> Southwest, ss -> spreadsheet, toc -> table of contents).
  6. Misspelling/common mistyping corrections (caud -> could, comopany -> company)
  7. Added words missing from main dictionary (cprnt -> C-Print)
  8. Turbo+ words (pkg -> package)

The good news is that according to Steve, most of the words in my PAL were just fine. The bad news is that Steve told me categories 1 and 4 above were bad. Here is his reasoning:

“Category 1 — prefix abbreviations — is the most serious because it's by far the most beguiling, and the most common and limiting problem, so for the rest of this answer I'll just focus on those, although the principles I'll discuss apply to category 4 as well,” he told me.

“Prefix abbreviations are the ‘natural’ thing to do. The problem comes down to ‘it doesn't scale,’ meaning that the 400-ish examples of category 1 in your PAL are about the maximum limit a transcriber can remember well — in fact you're doing better than most, as most prefix users max out at 100-300 prefix abbreviations.”

If you can remember more than 300 prefix abbreviations, Steve says, “That's a tribute to your brainpower, but there is a better path. It's possible to build a PAL with thousands of easier-to-remember abbreviations.”

Steve continued with his analysis of my PAL.

“Before TypeWell, there were dozens of abbreviation programs that all acted as PALs, letting typists use whatever abbreviations they fancied."

"And every one of those systems pooped out for most people at around 300 abbreviations, because it became too hard to remember them, and they ran into conflicts too often. The magic of TypeWell is that you can abbreviate tens of thousands of words — and can remember the abbreviations! It's unheard of, far beyond the natural limitations of our fallible brains and the natural PAL techniques.”

“So PAL and MultiPAL beckon the unwary down the primrose path, and sure enough, we see a limit of 100-500 PAL entries under natural use. Whereas if done differently, it’s possible for the experienced transcriber to add PAL entries unendingly, never hitting a limit, and growing in typing speed every year.”

How can Steve be so sure about this? For years, he has been doing behind-the-scenes research with advanced transcribers who use the PAL extensively.

“The solution is to apply the lessons of the TypeWell main abbreviation system to your use of the PAL. Start with a strong foundation by using a system that avoids conflicts as much as possible.”

Review Steve’s explanation of “conflicts” in this blog post.

“Prefix abbreviations are not your friend, because over time trying to recall distinctions like op -> opportunity vs. opp -> opposite will trip you up. Add a few thousand such cases and it's impossible.”

Steve came up with a solution for people like me, and perhaps you, who try to stay within the rules, but ultimately make up a lot of quirky abbreviations.

“I recommend that advanced transcribers use a form of super-Turbo. Regular TW has just two main rules: the top 40 and leave-out-some-vowels. Turbo adds several more rules, which we can summarize as one big rule: also-leave-out-some-consonants, namely L, H, R, and N. There are many associated details and so learning exactly how to use these big rules takes practice, but that's the core idea of them.”

TypeWell offers a distance learning courselet for experienced transcribers to really learn those new rules and details, through extensive drill and practice.

“Turbo continues to avoid most conflicts, just as regular TW does,” Steve continues. “So the first step in making awesome PALs is to use Turbo as much as possible. It's not just yet another way to build a 300-element PAL; it's a proven way to build a PAL with thousands of entries.”

TypeWell’s built-in dictionary has over half a million words, which means that even that a PAL, it’s adequate for most beginning transcribers.

Transcribers who add thousands of entries in their PALs are not looking to add new words to the dictionary.

Instead, they're looking to save keystrokes by making ultra-short abbreviations for thousands of existing words.

“The problem with Turbo is that transcribers want even shorter abbreviations than Turbo permits, which drives them to the dark side of prefix abbreviations. The solution is to add more well-chosen rules. I've developed a list of about 20 additional rules, which system I call ‘Extreme.’ These rules are not as simple and conflict-free as the main TW and Turbo rules, which is why they're not part of the automatic system. But they are so much better than prefix-based rules that they work excellently for building PALs of any size.”

“For instance, the abbreviation pckg -> package is too long. Plus it conflicts with pckg -> packing or picking. What to do? In ‘Extreme,’ you can leave out the ‘c’ in a mid-word ‘ck.’ So we could add pkg -> package to our PAL. I repeat, this is not a rule you can apply in every case, as that would cause too many conflicts. But it's excellent for allowing one to build a much more effective PAL.”

Will TypeWell ever develop a training for those who would like to learn the “Extreme” abbreviation rules? Perhaps, if enough experienced transcribers are interested in super-charging their typing speed.

Would you pursue a new-to-you abbreviation system if you knew it could shave off keystrokes, or are you happy with the TypeWell dictionary and PAL as they are now? Leave a comment below!


Ken Deutsch

Ken Deutsch is a TypeWell examiner and transcriber who lives in sunny Sarasota. He has constantly revised his definition of the word "old."

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