Intelligent String Abbreviation

James Edwards
James Edwards

For the seventh article in the small-and-sweet functions series, I’d like you show you a function called abbreviate() — the main purpose of which I’m sure you can guess! It abbreviates a string to a specified maximum length, but it does so intelligently — ensuring that the split will never occur in the middle of a word, as well as pre-processing the string to remove extraneous whitespace. Here’s the abbreviate function’s code:

function abbreviate(str, max, suffix)
  if((str = str.replace(/^\s+|\s+$/g, '').replace(/[\r\n]*\s*[\r\n]+/g, ' ').replace(/[ \t]+/g, ' ')).length <= max)
    return str;
  abbr = '',
  str = str.split(' '),
  suffix = (typeof suffix !== 'undefined' ? suffix : ' ...'),
  max = (max - suffix.length);
  for(var len = str.length, i = 0; i < len; i ++)
    if((abbr + str[i]).length < max)
      abbr += str[i] + ' ';
    else { break; }

  return abbr.replace(/[ ]$/g, '') + suffix;
The function takes three arguments — the original input string, the maximum output length, and an optional suffix to add to the end of the abbreviated string. If the suffix is not defined then it defaults to " ..." (a space followed by three dots), which is a common and recognisable way of indicating abbreviation.

What the Function’s For

The function can be used whenever you need to limit the length of a string, as a more-intelligent alternative to a simple substr
expression. There are any number of possible applications — such as processing form input, creating custom tooltips, displaying message subjects in a web-based email list, or pre-processing data to be sent via Ajax. For example, to limit a string to 100 characters and add the default suffix, we’d call it like this:
str = abbreviate(str, 100);
Which is notionally equivalent to this substr expression:
str = str.substr(0, 96) + " ..."
But that’s a very blunt instrument, as it will often result in an output string which is split in the middle of a word. The abbreviate
function is specifically designed not to do that, and will split the string before the last word rather than in the middle of it. So the output string produced by abbreviate() will often be shorter than the specified maximum — but it will never be longer. The function also accounts for the space required by the abbreviation suffix, i.e. if the specific maximum if 100
but the suffix itself is 4 characters, then we can only use up to 96 characters of the main input string. You can specify no suffix at all by passing an empty-string, or if you wanted to abbreviate a markup string then you can define it as an HTML close-tag. For example, the following input:
abbreviate("<p>One two three four five</p>", 15, "</p>");
Would produce this output:
<p>One two</p>

How the Function Works

The key to the abbreviate
function is the ability to split an input string into individual words, then to re-compile as many of the words as will fit into the maximum length. To make this effective, we need to ensure that the splits between words are predictable, and the simplest way to do that is by minimising internal whitespace — converting line-breaks and tabs to spaces, and then reducing contiguous spaces, so that every chunk of internal whitespace becomes a single space. There are other ways of handling that, of course — for example, we could define a more flexible regular-expression for the split, that accounts for all the different kinds of character we might find between words. There’s even a word-boundary character for regular-expressions ("b") so we could just use that. But I’ve found that the whitespace pre-processing is useful in its own right, especially when it comes to user input. And splitting by word-boundary doesn’t produce the desired results, since dashes, dots, commas, and most special characters in fact, count as word-boundaries. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to split the words by punctuation characters, unless the character is followed by a space, so that things like hyphenated words and code-fragments are not split in the middle. So the function’s first job is to do that whitespace pre-processing, and then if the result is already shorter than the specified maximum, we can return it straight away:
if((str = str.replace(/^\s+|\s+$/g, '').replace(/[\r\n]*\s*[\r\n]+/g, ' ').replace(/[ \t]+/g, ' ')).length <= max)
  return str;
If we didn’t do that, then we might get cases where the string becomes abbreviated when it doesn’t have to be, for example:
abbreviate("Already long enough", 20)
Without that first condition we’d get abbreviated output, since the specified maximum has to account for the length of the suffix:
Already long ...
Whereas adding that first condition produces unmodified output:
Already long enough
So unless we return at that point, we proceed to compile the abbreviated string — splitting the input string by spaces to create individual words, then iteratively adding each word-space pair back together, for as long as the abbreviated string is shorter than the specified maximum. Once we’ve compiled as much as we need, we can break iteration, and then trim the residual space from the end of the abbreviated string, before adding the suffix and finally returning the result. It may seem a little wasteful to right-trim that residual space, only to add it back with the default suffix, but by doing so we allow for an input suffix to have no space at all.


So there you have it — a simple but intelligent function for abbreviating strings, which also pre-processes the input to remove extraneous whitespace. In my experience, these two requirements are often found together, and that’s why I’ve developed the function to work this way.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Intelligent String Abbreviation

What is the concept of intelligent string abbreviation?

Intelligent string abbreviation is a method used in programming to shorten long strings of text without losing their meaning. This is particularly useful in situations where space is limited, such as in mobile applications or when displaying data in tables. The intelligent part comes from the algorithm’s ability to maintain the most significant parts of the string, ensuring that the abbreviated version still conveys the same information as the original.

How does intelligent string abbreviation work in programming?

In programming, intelligent string abbreviation works by using specific algorithms that analyze the string and determine the most significant parts to keep. These algorithms can be based on various factors, such as the frequency of character occurrence, the position of characters in the string, or even the context in which the string is used. The algorithm then removes the less significant parts, resulting in an abbreviated version of the original string.

What are some practical applications of intelligent string abbreviation?

Intelligent string abbreviation has a wide range of applications in the field of programming and data management. For instance, it can be used in mobile applications to display long strings of text in a limited space. It can also be used in data tables to ensure that all information fits within the designated columns. Additionally, it can be used in search engines to display abbreviated versions of long search results, making it easier for users to scan through the results.

How does intelligent string abbreviation differ from regular abbreviation?

Unlike regular abbreviation, which simply shortens a string by removing certain characters, intelligent string abbreviation uses algorithms to determine the most significant parts of the string to keep. This ensures that the abbreviated version still conveys the same information as the original, even though it is shorter. This makes intelligent string abbreviation a more sophisticated and effective method of shortening strings.

Can I customize the intelligent string abbreviation process?

Yes, the intelligent string abbreviation process can be customized according to your specific needs. This can be done by adjusting the parameters of the abbreviation algorithm, such as the maximum length of the abbreviated string or the criteria used to determine the significance of different parts of the string. This allows you to fine-tune the abbreviation process to achieve the best results for your particular application.

Is intelligent string abbreviation language-specific?

While the basic concept of intelligent string abbreviation is not language-specific, the implementation of the abbreviation algorithm may vary depending on the language. This is because different languages have different rules and structures, which can affect the way the abbreviation process is carried out. Therefore, when implementing intelligent string abbreviation, it is important to take into account the specific characteristics of the language you are working with.

What are the challenges in implementing intelligent string abbreviation?

One of the main challenges in implementing intelligent string abbreviation is determining the most significant parts of the string to keep. This requires a deep understanding of the context in which the string is used, as well as the specific rules and structures of the language. Additionally, the abbreviation process must be carried out in a way that does not compromise the readability or meaning of the string, which can be a complex task.

Can intelligent string abbreviation be used in all programming languages?

In theory, intelligent string abbreviation can be implemented in any programming language. However, the specific implementation details may vary depending on the language. Some languages may have built-in functions or libraries that facilitate the abbreviation process, while others may require you to write the abbreviation algorithm from scratch. Therefore, it is important to research and understand the capabilities of the language you are working with before attempting to implement intelligent string abbreviation.

How can I test the effectiveness of my intelligent string abbreviation algorithm?

The effectiveness of an intelligent string abbreviation algorithm can be tested by comparing the abbreviated strings it produces with the original strings. The key is to ensure that the abbreviated versions still convey the same information as the originals, even though they are shorter. This can be done by conducting user tests, where people are asked to interpret the abbreviated strings and their responses are compared with the intended meaning.

Are there any resources available to help me implement intelligent string abbreviation?

Yes, there are many resources available online that can help you understand and implement intelligent string abbreviation. These include tutorials, code examples, and documentation for various programming languages. Additionally, there are online communities and forums where you can ask questions and get help from other programmers who have experience with intelligent string abbreviation.