Dictation and Writing with Mountain Lion

In my last post I wrote about TextExpander and how one might use text expansion software to help save time with writing.  Just a couple of days later, by coincidence, Apple released the OS X update Mountain Lion, which has another tool that helps to save time typing — dictation.  It lets you speak into your computer’s microphone and the text will appear in the text field where you have your cursor.  Other dictation software already exists, but this is the first time it’s been integrated into an operating system itself.  Any text field you can type in, you can dictate text into, and this is pretty amazing.

I’ve spent the past few days testing it out, and reviewing it, because a dictation tool will only be useful if it can turn what you say into text accurately and quickly. I’ve been using it off and on for various typing tasks, including writing this post, and I have to say it’s worked better than I’d expected.  Mis-types seem to be more a factor of my own pronunciation problems rather then the dictation’s problem.  It also seems to have some problems with strange sentences and words (read: discipline-specific terms) since it seems to try to be smart about what it thinks you’re trying to say.  So far I’ve been really impressed with its abilities to translate my speaking into text, and I’m looking forward to integrating it into my daily writing tasks.

How Does It Work?

As I mentioned above, the dictation capabilities are built into the operating system, so you can don’t have to have any additional application open in order to use it. You can access the preferences for it by going to the “Dictation & Speech” pane of the system preferences.  If you’ve installed Mountain Lion and want to get started right away, tap the function key twice, say something, and then tap the key twice again — and voila — the text should appear.  If it looks garbled or there are errors, you can just go back and edit it with your cursor. Apple says that the more that you use it, the better it learns how to interpret your individual speech patterns.

It’s a little different than I’d expected; I thought that you’d just be able to talk and text would appear — instead it works by collecting a little snippet of what you say and then posting it in the text field.  You say phrases or sentences (up to a 30-second chunk) and pause while it transcribes what you said, instead of a continuing stream of speech and transcription. I find this nice, because it creates a rhythm to writing, including pauses to stop and think about what you will say next.  You can also insert punctuation marks by saying “exclamation point,” “comma,” “period,” “quote,” etc.  It has worked with every punctuation mark I have tried so far, you just have to figure out what phrase will make it work.

Testing It out with Different Writing Tasks

So far I’ve tested using dictation for different writing tasks.  Here are my thoughts:

  • Writing comments on student papers – since it’s summer, I don’t have any student papers right now to grade, but I did open up Microsoft Word and test using dictation in the comments field, and it worked well.  I would use it for grading papers in the future, because along with saving time typing, I also think that the spoken word would lend itself well to the way that I like to phrase comments to students.
  • Emails – Dictation works great for email!  I dictated a couple of emails, and they took far less time to write than if I had typed them.  More formal email communication would probably need more revision and editing, but they usually do anyway, so I’ll probably use dictation for emailing in the future as well.
  • Academic writing – I use Scrivener as my word processor for my dissertation (among other things), and tried dictation with it.  It worked well enough, although I think I need more time to carefully think about the words that I choose, so I don’t know if I will continue using dictation for this. The phrases and sentences in my academic writing are also more difficult for my computer to transcribe than other kinds of communication that I’ve used it for.  I think that since the vocabulary and syntax of a discipline can be more specialized, the dictation tool doesn’t work as well.
  • Blog posts – I wrote this post using Chrome as my web browser, and within the WordPress installation for this blog — it worked great!  As with everything that I’ve used it for so far, I have to read over the text that the dictation produces and edit/revise it, but I do that for hand-typed text also, so I don’t mind.

One big downside to dictation is that you need to do it somewhere by yourself.  Since I like to work on my laptop in various places, and sometimes those are public spaces, I am not comfortable talking to my computer, and I’m sure that no one wants to listen to me doing that.  This limits the places that I can for writing if I want to use dictation.

Overall, Pretty Useful

This is the first time I’ve used any type of dictation software but now I can’t help but imagine all the possibilities that it can open up for me.  Even just using it for the first half hour and I’ve adapted my speaking so that it will transcribe more accurately.  I can imagine for people who type slowly and make a lot of typing errors that this would be a great help in writing all kinds of things.  Also, there is something to be said about the ease of communicating with spoken words versus writing them down. (Though with my dissertation, I think I will stick to typing by hand!)

If you’re someone who has a Mac then I highly recommend that you upgrade to Mountain Lion if you haven’t already, and to try out the new dictation feature. It’s easy to use and might save you some time doing mundane typing tasks.

Have you tried the new dictation tool on Mountain Lion, or other dictation tools? What are your thoughts? Please let us know in the comments!

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.


  1. John Drummond says:

    I tried Dragon waaaay back in the day. What I found was that I am completely incapable of speaking in anything resembling my writing voice.

    • Kim Mann says:

      I’ve been having that problem too — I’m hoping that practicing with it will help!

  2. Barry mackichan says:

    The reason it doesn’t write anything until after you press Fn twice the second time is that it sends the complete audio phrase to Apple’s servers, which then translate it to text. This contrasts with Dragon, which does the translation on your own computer.
    This is not necessarily bad, but it does have privacy and security implications, and it will not work when you do not have an Internet connection.