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Speak and Spell: How Dictation Software Makes Us Rethink Writing

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If I’ve written you an email on my phone lately, you might have noticed something slightly off about it. It doesn’t read like email from me used to. I use fewer contractions, fewer adverbs, and I’m more likely to ramble.

What’s changed is that, a year ago, I discovered that Android and Apple phones have become so good at transcription, it’s now much faster for me to talk than type. (And that’s saying a lot: I was a fast phone-typist.) So while sending texts and emails or using chat apps on my phone, I started talking it out—then quickly cleaning up any wrong words. There are shockingly few. I’d estimate that fully two-thirds of all messages I compose on my phone are now spoken.

I’m probably an extreme case—but only for now. People are rapidly adopting voice-writing. Nuance, a leading firm running cloud-transcription services for mobile devices, processes 48 percent more voice than it did a year ago, with an average accuracy of 95 percent.

That’s convenient and futuristic-sounding. But it’s also going to change the way we write. For one, it may make our prose more casual. One small study of correspondence between two academics in 2003 found that when one of them shifted to voice-dictation software, his sentences became a bit shorter, he used status markers like “sir” and “boss” less often, and he was more likely to use first-person pronouns. “People are more personal when they’re speaking,” says James Pennebaker, a social psychologist who coauthored the research.

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This would continue the grand trend of digital communication: making our prose more colloquial, as Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University, has found in studying online language. One friend of mine, the designer Natalie Roth, has indeed noticed that dictation makes her sound like a slightly less complex thinker: “I simplify what I’m saying so the computer will understand it. It’s the way I speak to someone when I know that their English is a bit rusty.”

Then again, it’s certainly possible to be formal and stylized, if you try. Late in his career, Henry James shifted from typing his novels to dictating them, and his prose actually became more ornate in the process, not less. (“He luxuriated in fine phrases and he was exquisitely baroque,” his biographer Leon Edel told The Paris Review.)

But voice-writing isn’t just about the quality of our prose. It’s a social shift, because you’re saying out loud something that was previously hidden and private. A crowded bus may not be the best time to dictate an email about your weird new rash. On the other hand, my wife and I don’t mind occasionally hearing the other’s email, so we dictate when we’re home, giving us a curious (and often hilarious) awareness of one another’s correspondence. I’ve developed a mental habit when I’m out in public: quickly assessing which texts should remain typed.

In a sense, voice-writing requires people to change their cognitive style. It’s relatively free and easy, more like speech than writing. But because it’s hard to edit and tinker, dictating to a phone is most like working on an old manual typewriter, where you have to map out each sentence in your head before clacking away. “I think through more completely what I’m trying to say,” Erik Olsen, a video journalist at The New York Times and another dictation adherent, told me.

So consider this a possible gift from a new technology. We live in a world of explosive publishing, where people compose far more prose than ever before. It’d be nice if a tool finally encouraged us to think before we speak.

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