Talk To Your Mac: Using Dictation Effectively

One of the more useful and interesting features in OS X Mountain Lion is Dictation, which allows you to speak to your Mac and have your words translated to text. It’s system-wide, and works in any app where text can be entered. Before you dive in and start speaking to your Mac, here’s how to use it to its fullest.

If you’ve used a tool like Dragon Naturally Speaking, Siri on your iPhone, or Google Voice Actions (or another personal assistant) on your Android phone, you know how Dictation works already. The difference here is that instead of using Dictation to issue commands, search the web, or call friends, it’s ideal for writing documents, commenting on articles, and turning your thoughts into blocks of text anywhere text can be entered. Here’s how to set it up.

Enable Dictation In System Preferences

  1. Click the Apple Menu and select System Preferences
  2. Under “System” click “Dictation and Speech.”
  3. Toggle Dictation from Off (default) to On.
  4. Optional: Change the default keyboard shortcut to enable dictation — if you use an external keyboard, you may not have a dedicated function button.

Once enabled, tap the function key (FN) twice (or whichever shortcut you selected) to start or stop Dictation. You can also skip System Preferences entirely by tapping the function key twice from any window, but we think the long way is best so you can change the shortcut if you want.

Keep in mind that when you use Dictation, your words (and some other data) are sent to Apple to be translated into text — much like when you use Siri. Apple says the data is used to improve voice recognition only, and not associated with any other information Apple may have about you.


Use A Headset Or Microphone

In the Dictation and Speech preferences, you have the choice to switch the input used for dictation to your Mac’s line-in over the internal microphone. Unless you’re sitting right in front of your Mac all the time, we’d suggest using a headset or dedicated microphone when you’re working with Dictation. Using the internal mic isn’t bad, but using a headset is definitely better and in our tests led to fewer skipped or incorrect words. Of course, common sense also applies: speak loudly and clearly when working with dictation and you’ll have better luck. No mumbling! Image: Paul Arrington.

Don’t Forget Punctuation And Commands

Remember, the dictation tool translates your words into text — it doesn’t know much about grammar. That means if you want a comma in a sentence, or want to end a sentence with a period or exclamation point, you have to say it aloud for the app to understand what you want. It”s tricky to get into the habit of saying things like "Dear Adam comma new line thank you for sending this over to me period it's a huge help exclamation point" but you’ll get the hang of it. The result, of course, would be:

Dear Adam,

Thank you for sending this over to me. It’s a huge help!

Dictation does a good job of recognising proper nouns and capitalising them, and can even recognise your contacts’ names and proper spellings. Here are some other helpful commands to remember:

  • “All Caps” turns all of the following text into ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.
  • “New Paragraph”, as the name implies, starts a new paragraph.
  • “New Line” inserts a carriage return.
  • Dollar amounts and dates are automatically recognised, so saying “thirteen dollars and 20 five cents” will appear as “$13.25” and “July twenty-fifth twenty-twelve at 9PM” will appear “July 25, 2012 at 9PM.”
  • “Smiley” and “Frowny” correspond to their emoticons and are displayed as “:-)” and “:-(” respectively.
  • Punctuation like “comma”, “period”, and “quotation mark”, all work the way you would expect.

Dictation works out of the box. You don’t need to train it with your voice and while it does get better over time as it learns your voice, it’s not like many mobile assistants that need hours of input before they work effectively. Best of all, it supports US, UK, and Australian English, so an accent from any of those locations won’t matter much. If you use your Mac in a different language, Dictation also supports French, German and Japanese, and will enter text spoken in those languages correctly.

If you’ve upgraded to Mountain Lion and are using the new Dictation feature, let us know some of your favourite commands and share your experience with it in the comments below.

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