Your Mac can understand what you’re saying even if you use natural language. Think words and sentences that roll off your tongue in everyday conversation with people. The hard part is getting used to this idea and remembering to use natural language when you have used compu-speak for so long.
If you have used search engines like Google and Bing, or Siri on your Mac or iPhone, you have already had practice with natural language. Use it some more and get things done on your Mac. We’ll show you how.
1. Set Reminders
Open Reminders and add a new reminder to, say, “call Mom from the airport at 2pm.”” The app picks up the “2pm” bit and schedules a reminder for that time, for the current day. That was easy, right?
Now compare that with the usual method of scheduling reminders: you have to double-click on the reminder, check the On a day box, and fiddle with the date and time options. It feels like too much work once you know you can create reminders by typing in stuff like:
- “Pay bills next week”
- “Pack for Sydney trip tomorrow”
- “Book flight tickets on Wednesday”
- “Leave for movie at 12.15 today”
- “Meet B for dinner on 31st Jan”
Use the shortcut Cmd + N to create reminders even faster. Reminders parses your text to pick out dates and times, and gets it right. It knows that when you say 2pm, you mean 2pm today or when you say Wednesday, you mean the upcoming Wednesday. Not in certain cases though.
Let’s say it’s April 2019 and you want to schedule way ahead to Jan 24th, 2020. That works as you would expect, but if you want to schedule for March 24th, Reminders takes it to mean March 24, 2019. It does that for any date that’s part of March 2019 (last month) and April 2019 (current month).
2. Create Calendar Events
You can use the same commands as above to create events via the Create quick event button in the Calendar app. When you create an event, Calendar jumps to the right date and opens the info section for the event. It’s where you can edit the date and time, add a location, or type in notes.
The shortcut for creating a calendar event is also the same as the one you need for creating a reminder: Cmd + N.
3. Search in Spotlight
If you say to Spotlight show me emails from last month, it will know what you’re talking about. Replace “last month” with, say, “feb 2015”, “yesterday”, or “24th November” and it will still know. Here’s what else you can ask Spotlight to bring up (with examples, of course):
- Chats: “messages from Sam”
- Images: “photos from messages”, “screenshots i took today”
- Documents: “documents from last week”, “spreadsheets from december”
- Music and Videos: “songs from last month”, “videos from 2017”
- Weather Details: “weather in mumbai”, “show me the weather in sydney”
As the Top Hits results seem hit and miss, it’s best to look under the appropriate category for the closest matches to your search queries. Of course, you won’t see certain categories if you have disabled them in your Mac’s settings. If you want to re-display them, you’ll have to enable them from System Preferences > Spotlight > Search Results.
Be prepared to see slow or inaccurate results at times. Often, this has more to do with the Spotlight mechanism itself than with the incorrect use of natural language.
4. Search in Mac Apps
You can search for data within apps such as Finder and Mail using the same natural language commands you use with Spotlight. There’s a catch though: you won’t see the results directly. Instead you’ll see search filters for your query in a dropdown menu and you’ll have to select them one by one to narrow down the results.
Let’s say I want to search for emails from Tim. I can type “emails from Tim” in Spotlight to find them. If I search for “emails from Tim in 2016”, Spotlight updates the results to match.
Now let me try the same queries in the Mail app. As soon as I type in “emails from Tim”, Mail gives me a People filter to pinpoint the person whose emails I’m referring to.
After I select Tim’s name and hit Enter, Mail displays the right results. Now I can extend the query further by typing “in 2016”. Mail then allows me to pick the year 2016 from the Date filter. Again, as soon as I hit Enter, it displays the right results (i.e. emails from Tim in 2016).
Likewise, if I search for “documents from last week” in Spotlight, I get the correct matches right away. If I search for the same thing in Finder, I have to first select the Last Week option listed under the Dates attribute before I can see the relevant results.
As you can see, using Spotlight is faster, but don’t dismiss in-app search as the lesser method. It often turns out to be more precise and more accurate than Spotlight search.
5. Ask Siri
Anything you search with Spotlight, you can search with Siri, the intelligent voice assistant who lives on your Mac. You can also dictate text to Siri or ask her to play music, do math, or open websites for you.
Siri will show up at work only after you enable the Ask Siri feature from System Preferences > Siri. Once you do, its menu bar icon appears. You’ll have to click on the icon every time you want Siri to listen to your query.
Depending on where in the world you’re located, the default Siri voice might belong to a “she” or a “he”. You can pick a voice of a different nationality and/or gender anytime from System Preferences > Siri.
Chat with Siri like you would with a flesh-and-blood personal assistant, and Siri will respond with the best she knows. You don’t need to learn any special “protocol” here. Don’t curse at her though — using abusive language with artificial intelligence could cost you your job.
If Siri can’t understand what you’re saying or can’t find the information you’re asking for, she’ll say so. At times, she’ll give you tips to improve your queries.
If you need to, say, enable a feature to find a particular piece of information, Siri will tell you that, too.
Lost for words? Siri will prompt you with examples of what you can ask her to find (see screenshot below).
Now it’s time for a reality check. Get things done with the help of Siri all you want, but at all times remember that she is a piece of software on your computer in a technologically intrusive world. Her demands on your personal data can put your privacy at risk. Read what Apple has to say about Siri and privacy at this location:
System Preferences > Siri > Siri Suggestions & Privacy > About Siri & Privacy…
Tell Your Mac What to Do
So you want to use natural language everywhere you can. You’re in luck, because many third-party Mac apps either support it already or will probably do so in future. Here are a few popular ones that belong to the first category:
- Evernote: Note-taking app
- Fantastical: Menu bar calendar app (our review)
- Lacona: Keyboard-based launcher app
- Numi: Calculator app
- Spark: Email app (why you should be using Spark)
- Todoist: To-do list app
Natural language search may not be perfect yet, but it’s effective enough to be useful a lot of the time.
Have you used natural language to work with macOS apps and commands? Are you comfortable doing so? Do you need a few tries to get your queries right?