How To Dictate Writing On Your Mac: Apple’s Dictation vs DragonDictate

Bakari Chavanu 06-08-2012

mac dictation softwareFor a long time if you wanted or needed to use a speech-to-text dictation program on your Mac, your only choices were MacSpeech Dictate (now defunct) and Nuance’s DragonDictate Stop Typing: Better Learn To Dictate Text with Dragon Dictate for Mobile Devices [iOS] Nuance's iPhone apps, Dragon and Dragon Search have been available for free download for over a year now. Since then, the company has added a few other similar voice to text apps to its line... Read More . But with the release of Mountain Lion, Apple has for the first time built text dictation into the operating system.


This feature allows you to actually speak sentences into your Mac’s microphone and see them typed out for you, a lot faster than you could type what you say. Apple’s Dictation feature works similarly to how it does in the iPhone 4S.

However, while the Mountain Lion Dictation feature is a welcome addition to the upgraded OS, it does have limitations you should know about, especially if you’re curious about using text dictation for longer pieces of writing. This article explains how to use Dictation and what its limitations are.

How Dictation Works

In OS X 10.8, you can call up the Dictation feature in any text application on the Mac by pressing the Fn (Function) button on your keyboard. When prompted to do so, clearly speak a sentence or two of text (say the word, “period” at the end of your sentence) and then hit the Fn or Return key after you’re finished. In a second or two your words will be typed, Star Trek style, faster than you could type them manually.

mac dictation software

To add more text, just press the Fn key again. Each of your sentences will automatically begin with a capital letter. And if you speak clearly and directly, the Dictation feature can be pretty accurate most of the time. Also, you can pause and think about what you’re going to say before you say it, and Dictation will wait. So don’t feel intimidated into speaking quickly.

mac dictation

If you open System Preferences > Dictation & Speech, you can change the shortcut for activating Dictation, as well as turn it on and off. You can also choose the mic (if you have more than one connected to your Mac) for listening to your dictation.

mac dictation

However, make note of what it says in the About Dictation and Privacy. In order to use Dictation, your Mac must be connected to the Internet. If it does not work, it’s probably because your Mac is experiencing problems with the router connection.

mac dictation

One of the drawbacks with using Dictation is that you must be connected to the Internet, and what you say will be recorded and sent to Apple, including other information in your computer, including the contact names (first names and nicknames) in your Address Book (renamed Contacts in Mountain Lion). Apple says that:

“All of this data is used to help the dictation feature understand you better and recognize what you say. Your User Data is not linked to other data that Apple may have from your use of other Apple services.”

You can disable Dictation, but when you do so, all your user data on Apple’s side will be deleted, as well as your recent voice input data. You can read the rest of the privacy policy for yourself, but apparently collecting this data makes the feature over time more accurate. Nevertheless, there should be a way to use the feature without an Internet connection.

When To Use It

Apple’s Dictation feature is highly welcomed, especially for those of us with poor typing, spelling, or hand disabilities. However, because you can’t see what you dictate until after you click the shortcut key, the Dictation feature is most useful for writing short emails, comments, tweets and notes. It’s not useful for long pieces of writing.

The most widely used dictation program for the Mac has been Nuances DragonDictate and Dragon Express. With these programs, your dictations get typed immediately after you pause or come to full stop in a sentence. You can also verbally edit your dictated text as you “write.” This cannot be done with Apple’s Dictation feature.

Dragon Express does not seem to be updated yet for Mountain Lion. DragonDictate does appear to be stable on the new operating system, however.

How Accurate Is It?

Compared to DragonDictate, the OS X Dictation program is just as accurate, and even more so because it’s built into the operating system. Below is a screenshot of a few test sentences. The feature will recognize proper nouns and names, but it will have trouble with words that sound the same but have different spellings. I dictated “Micheal Wood,” and it kept typing “would.”

mac dictation app

If you speak too fast, the feature misunderstands what you say, as when I dictated “I write for.” However, notice that in terms of accuracy, the Dictation feature will always correctly spell words. It can misinterpret what you say, but it uses the dictionary to correctly spell words based on what it thinks you said. Even “Rhineforte” in the screenshot above is actually a street name.

Dictation Commands

Another limitation with Dictation is that you can’t train it to use the words you want. Unlike with DragonDictate, I can’t for example train it to recognize and type ““, as you can see in the screenshot above. Notice, also, as with the Dictation program in the iPhone 4S, when a blue dotted line appears under one or more words, the program may give a suggestion for what it thought you meant. When you put your cursor at the end of those dots, alternative suggestions will appear, and if one is correct just click on it, and the correction will be made.

You can also use some limited quotation commands with this Dictation feature. The most common command you will use of course is “period,” or “full stop” at the end of your sentences. You can also dictate other punctuation, including “question mark,” ”explanation point,” “open parenthesis,” “close parenthesis,” “quote,” “new paragraph,” and “new line.”

Even when you use these commands correctly, the program still may misinterpret what you meant (as in the example below.)

mac dictation software

Also, if you dictate, “I owe her ten dollars and forty-six cents,” the Dictation feature will type “$10.46.” Since Dictation is based on Nuance technology, part of which Siri diction is based, you can use this list of Dragon Dictation commands found in However, Dictation is not as advanced as DragonDictate – at least not yet – so don’t expect it to accurately do all your typing for you.

Learning Dictation

If you’ve never used a speech to text dictation program, doing so can almost feel like learning how to write again, because the difference between typing and dictating is that you have to think about what you say before you say it. So one way to develop diction skills is simply to use the program everyday. You might use Dictation for daily journal writing, or posting tweets. Use it regularly, and carefully re-read and edit what it types out for you.

Let us know what you think about the new Dictation feature in Mountain Lion. Also, if you want to boss your Mac around in other ways, check out this article on other Mac speech commands How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac Read More .

Explore more about: Speech Recognition, Writing Tips.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Enjoyed this article? Stay informed by joining our newsletter!

Enter your Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Nathan
    April 12, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    On my 2012 Mac, pressing fn once did not activate Dictation. Under the Edit menu (desktop as well as Apple Pages), the keyboard shortcut indicates fn fn (twice).

  2. Jackie
    September 16, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    Thank you for the information, but why is my mouse deactivated on my word document?

  3. Chris
    May 19, 2017 at 11:32 am

    Does anyone know whether I can use native Mac dictation in Word for Mac?

  4. Bob O'Connor
    June 16, 2016 at 11:20 am

    On long documents (books) Siri works and Dragon doesn't. My huge objection to Siri is that it capitalizes words in the middle of sentences and when the word might be a proper name, It capitalizes it. If I write "hi will come" tt types "IWill come." And often if any word is even close to a proper name it types the proper name.
    I have had Dragon for years but seldom use it now.
    I would think that it should be easy to stop the mid-sentence capitalization. It drives me crazy!

  5. Tom Buckman
    December 4, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    What is time limit for DD? Only 30 sec for Mountain Lion...

    • Bakari Chavanu
      December 10, 2012 at 7:15 am

      There's no time limit on DD. When you pause during dictation, it will immediately type what you say.

  6. Seth
    November 14, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Question: should I also purchase Dragon?

    I have been using Dragon for many years... And they finally nailed in version 11.5. I use Dragon for responding to emails to employees -- but not to clients, since Dragon is still prone to errors that could confuse the reader, but which I may not notice before I hit send.

    Dragon is also great for dumping hand written notes into the Word to be sorted out later.

    I turn off the Command feature to improve accuracy.

    So... I'm just now (Nov 2012) buying a new Mac Air - moving from a ThinkPad PC. Should I install Dragon on the Air?

    • Bakari Chavanu
      November 21, 2012 at 4:21 am

      Seth, Dragon for the Mac has gotten much better with each update. It's not perfect, but if you want to rest your fingers from typing, it's worth using. It works fine on my MacBook Air using the built-in mic or the mic on a pair of iPhone earbuds.

  7. Rob Stark, King of the North
    October 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    I really like your mustache.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      November 21, 2012 at 4:21 am

      Okay. lol

  8. Rob Stark, King of the North
    October 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I like your mustache.

  9. Kofi Agyeman
    August 20, 2012 at 7:01 am

    i can't use says it's nOt available in sOuth africa and tO chOOse anOther language, but even when i chOOse US english, it still dOesn't wOrk...

    • Bakari Chavanu
      August 21, 2012 at 10:44 pm

      Hmmm, Kofi, it sounds like the app is not universal as it should be. I would try to write Apple and request your language be added.

  10. Arie
    August 7, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Thank you for this information, I am using mountain lion
    dictate my text here. I am not much of a touch typist, so it is a pretty good new feature from me. Although I have found that with my MacBook air is the microphone on the chassis does not seem to be very accurate. So I'm using an external microphone. But it seems now my voice data needs to be retrained in order to get accuracy again. So do voice database seems to become somewhat garbled by using different microphones.
    A great new feature but it certainly takes some patience.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      August 8, 2012 at 8:36 pm

      Hmmm, Arie, with the built-in Dictation feature, you shouldn't have to do any voice training. I use Dictation feature on my MBA as well, and I find I slightly better results when I'm using the mic on my iPhone earphones, which puts the mic closer to my mouth. But it also works with the built-in mic of the MBA. You do have to enunciate your words clearly, but there typically be errors in how it records what you say. And you right, some microphones might not work as well with the Dictation feature.

    August 7, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Ability to dictate quickly is quite useful for situations where we enter text in short increments - such as when placing markers in a video editing app, or text annotations in PDFs. In these situations, your hands are probably busy with the mouse or trackpad, and using BetterTouchTool to assign a gesture to start dictation makes the process even more enjoyable. Personally, Dragon Dictate works better for my accent and lags less.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      August 7, 2012 at 6:40 pm

      Onekerato, thanks for your feedback. I use BetterTouchTool in almost everything I do on my Mac.

  12. muotechguy
    August 7, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Actually, I think if you were to add "" to your contacts with a phonetic spelling, it would correctly recognise it. It's not built to recognise every name in the world, but it does dynamically build the corpus of lexical elements from your own system.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      August 7, 2012 at 6:39 pm

      Good point, I will give it a try. That sounds similar to using the dictation feature on the iPhone.

  13. medusozoa
    August 7, 2012 at 12:32 am

    I'm actually quite impressed by Apple's dictation software, despite not using it frequently. I'm quite certain I'll find reasons to use it in the future.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      August 7, 2012 at 2:08 am

      Oh yes definitely, it works fine for what it does. Thanks for your feedback.

  14. Dave
    August 6, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    "[...] the OS X Dictation program is just as accurate, and even more so because it’s built into the operating system."

    Accuracy has nothing to do with where the code resides, it has to do with the voice recognition code, the training method and corpus, etc.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      August 7, 2012 at 2:10 am

      Oh, I agree that the dictation feature is very accurate and I point that out in the article. But compared to Dragon Dictate, it is not as useful for extended pieces of writing. It's great for the type of writing I'm doing right now.

      • Dave
        August 7, 2012 at 1:10 pm

        That's not my point. You stated that it's accurate (and more so) because it's built in to the OS. That's not what drives voice recognition accuracy; accuracy is a function of how to the voice recognition is programmed, not where the code is (OS vs. application).

        • Bakari Chavanu
          August 7, 2012 at 6:42 pm

          Okay, gotcha. So what do you think about this business of Apple requiring that dictated text be sent their server and back to your computer? Do you really think that helps with accuracy as well?

        • Dave
          August 10, 2012 at 8:07 pm

          In the sense that it allows (a) further corpus training material (and even more if they get corrections back) and (b) they have a lot more computing horsepower than your laptop does, yes. Its general (i.e., non-user-specific training) accuracy would tend to improve over time.

          Whether or not it would end up being better (e.g., faster, more accurate, etc.) than a local, dedicated package, I don't know. There are always privacy concerns, but that's ultimately a non-technical issue.

  15. Ty Neal
    August 6, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Interesting article. I prefer DragonDictation.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      August 6, 2012 at 7:24 pm

      Ty, I agree. If you're avid user of text dictation, DD is the way to go. My wager is that Apple will improve the built-in dictation feature in coming updates. I've read more than a few times that DD is kind of the engine behind the Dictation feature in Mountain Lion.

      • Ty Neal
        August 6, 2012 at 7:49 pm

        Apple always does improve! Also, DD has more options availible such as apps in the apps store (I use their microphone app beucase i can get my ipod closer to me than my mac which improves the dictation).

        • Bakari Chavanu
          August 6, 2012 at 7:52 pm

          True, I've used the remote app for DD to walk around my office as I dictate. However, I do have to say that DD is not as stable as I would like. Apple's dictation works in nearly all text supported apps on the Mac. It's not useful for extended pieces of writing, but it's good for short comments like the one.

        • Ty Neal
          August 6, 2012 at 8:10 pm