How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac

Jeffry Thurana 18-03-2009

mac-speech-commands“Computer, how many Romulan battleships are there?” Captain Kirk said.


“Ten” a soft female voice answered.

“What’s our chance of survival?”

“Zero percent.”

Kirk smiled and said “Computer, increase the shield to maximum.” He sat on his chair on the bridge “and play me some Mozart.”



Then the scene from my imaginary episode of Star Trek continues with a fierce space battle between the USS Enterprise and ten Romulan battleships while Mozart’s “Air In G” plays in the background.

Countless episodes of sci-fi movies shows us that one of the major dreams of humans is to be able to have a conversation with computers. Your Mac OS X has a great speech recognition technology that is overlooked by most of its users. And even if we are still far from what the sci-fi movies dream about, talking with your Mac could be a very fun thing to do.

The Figure of Speech

To enable the speech recognition ability and use speech commands on your Mac, the first thing you have to do is open the Speech menu from System Preferences.

how to use mac speech


Then you need to choose the Speech Recognition tab.

How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac 02 speech recognition tab

Turn the function on by choosing On on the Speakable Items radio button.

The next step would be to choose the sound source – the default is Internal Microphone. Then you would want to calibrate it.


How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac 03 microphone calibration

You could change the Listening Key if you don’t want to use the default Esc key.

How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac 04 set the shortcut key

There are two options on how the computer should listen to you. If you don’t want to have “accidental” operation, choose Listen only while key is pressed radio button. If you want to have the nearest working environment to the USS Enterprise, choose Listen continuously with keyword and pick your favorite keyword.


To make sure that your Mac acknowledges your command, put the checkmark into Speak command acknowledgement option.

The Voice behind The Machine

We now come to the personal preferences part – which voice do you want to speak to you?  Personally, I like a girl’s voice as I consider my Mac to be a female. But there are many choices that Mac users could choose from the Text to Speech tab.

use mac speech commands

There are other options related to Speech that you can choose from this tab. My favorite is Speak selected text when the key is pressed. This way I can have my writing read to me as I can easily spot mistakes this way. Just don’t forget to choose the key combination.

How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac 06 speak selected text

But even without having this option checked, you still could have the text read to you by selecting any text then right-click on it and choose Speech –> Start Speaking. Please note that this right click option is not available for all applications.

How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac 07 speech start speaking

The quality of the speech is still very “machine” and far from a human sound. But sometimes it is fun listening to your document instead of reading it.

The List of Mac Speech Commands

So, how would you know what command to say to your Mac? Click on the down arrow from the Speech Recognition Window and choose Open Speech Command Window. You’ll have a window with a list of commands available.

How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac 08 open speech command

How To Use Speech Commands on Your Mac 09 speech command window

From my experiment I found out that these commands are easily editable. Just open the Speakable Items Folder (/User/Library/Speech/Speakable Items/) then rename the file(s). If you think that the “Minimize Speech Commands window” command is too long, just rename the corresponding file into something shorter, and then your Mac will understand the new command.

Please note that this feature will not work correctly in noisy environments since the noises will interfere with your spoken command.

Another annoyance is that sometimes the machine can be so stupid that you have to repeat a command several times.

But all in all, these speech recognition features of Mac OS X is another cool feature that Mac users should try.

As a fun bonus, try to say this command to your Mac: “tell me a joke” and share your thoughts and experiences using Mac speech commands using the comments below.

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  1. Laraine
    January 23, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    Eight years after you posted this, I'm not having any luck with dictation on my new 2017 iMac. Part of the problem is probably that my only choices are Australian and UK English. Kiwis do NOT like being taken for Australians any more than Canadians like being taken for Americans. Apple needs to bring out a New Zealand voice.

    BTW, Mozart didn't write an "air in G". I think you must mean Bach's so-called "Air on the G string", which comes from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068.

  2. k tuba
    December 6, 2009 at 1:05 am

    Voice recognition does not work very well - time, day browser are mostly OK - can't get ti to tell joke al the way through - using internal mic & have re-calibrated many times.. Could have been very slick feature, but very disappointing performance.

  3. Kanna
    August 24, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I have a question. I'm trying to make my computer log off by saying Avada Kedavra. I don't think it recognizes it. How do I make it log off/shut down? I already edited it from 'Log Off' but it doesn't work. Avada Kedavra is pronounced: uh-VAH-dah keh-DAV-rah. The 'A' in VAH is like the 'O' in Oz (Wizard of Oz.

    • Jeffry Thurana
      August 24, 2009 at 9:35 pm

      Yes, I think the word is not recognized by the computer. I tried to rename the "Log me off" with something like "Dead", "Kill Me" and "Tired" and they all worked fine.

      Maybe you should try to use a more understandable word/phrase.

      • Jeffry Thurana
        August 24, 2009 at 9:37 pm

        Sorry, I mean "Log me out", not "Log me off".

  4. petitefutemievre
    May 1, 2009 at 6:54 am

    love it!

  5. adam computes
    March 20, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Great article about Mac speech recognition...

    Windows XP and Vista users can try tazti speech recognition. it will blow your socks off.

    Youtube video

  6. Nate
    March 19, 2009 at 9:17 am

    OS X speech function is fun for a while, but Vista's really kills it when it comes to usefulness. Also I've found Vista recognizes commands better.

  7. tor
    March 18, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    'Air on G string' is by Johann Sebastian Bach - NOT Mozart!

    • Jeffry Thurana
      March 18, 2009 at 5:33 pm

      Yes, terribly sorry. My mistake. Air is Bach. I was going to write "Rondo Alla Turka" as in Crossroads movie but somehow my mind play Air because I remember it as the background of a scene in Se7en.

      Terribly sorry.

      • Mark O'Neill
        March 18, 2009 at 7:06 pm

        It's amazing how Jeffry writes a fantastic article about how to make your Mac computer talk and the first comment to hit the page is one that picks up a mistake about a piece of music!

  8. Adam Klimowski
    March 18, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Mozart’s "Air In G" plays in the background. Mozart's? "Air In G" is Bach's!