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Speak and Spell: How Dictation Software Makes Us Rethink Writing

19 September 2015

From Wired:

… 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.

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.)

Link to the rest at Wired.

Apps, Writing Tools

42 Comments to “Speak and Spell: How Dictation Software Makes Us Rethink Writing”

  1. James Pennebaker is a smart guy. He wrote the amazing book The Secret Life of Pronouns. So when he talks, I listen. And I think his study makes some good points.

    However, he seems to have been working with a cross section of the general population, not people who write for a living. So while dictation might change our emails and texts, I don’t think it will change long-form fiction and non-fiction.

    • Yeah, and that’s without even considering how much resistance writers seem to feel toward dictating anything besides emails, business letters, and memos. The act of typing or writing is, for most of us, baked into the process.

      I read Pennebaker’s book based on your review of it. It is amazing.

      • I have Dragon Naturally Speaking and the Apple built-in stuff – but the thought of writing fiction with it doesn’t sit well. I mentally format as I write, and punctuation, italics, and all the other little niceties of finished fiction are a royal pain when you dictate, and make you sound like a doctor readying a report for a medical transcriptionist who isn’t too bright.

        I would have to spend so much time manually adding in stuff later that I now do automatically with ye olde fingers, that it wouldn’t save any time.

        And editing? Absolutely no way I could do that without the fine control of a mouse and keyboard.

        Note that even the kiddies have to type on their tiny mobiles – speaking requires a very high level of competence if there is a time-shift on the receiving end (voicemails are horrible).

        If I had no other choice – say, after rotator cuff surgery – maybe.

        Otherwise, we’ll all use the easiest possible way to get to finished text.

        Henry James had the benefit of a human taking down his prose.

  2. The hospital in which I have my day job uses a VR system for dictations. So we end up with sentences such as, “She stood at the top of the stairs and her leg fell to the bottom.”

    I kid you not.

    • Ah Dragon. Dragon and mumbling Doctors. I have run across things such as ‘beat the Texas labs’, ‘Gosen for the stretches’, and other assorted nonsense because someone blathered into the mike and then never looked at what got written. And asking for them to fix things is useless. I’m just glad the worst offender decided that being approximately the age of a dinosaur meant he could finally retire. -__-

    • Prosthetics?

      Take care

      • Unfortunately, and predictably, that was my first thought on reading this piece of bullshing, but alas…both legs were the patient’s own.

        I keep a “bloopers” list fed to me by my associates. Some of the mistakes are brilliantly funny. Others–you wonder what an attorney might make of it in a court of law.

        Why do the hospitals not see failure-to-correct on the docs’ part as a safety issue? I don’t get it.

        • “Why do the hospitals not see failure-to-correct on the docs’ part as a safety issue? I don’t get it.”

          Maybe because it shows a track record of what was said wasn’t what the computer saved — which makes it much easier when a doctor wishes they ‘hadn’t’ said something to say “That wasn’t what I said!” — all the other errors throw the log into question. (why else do they always write in such a manner that others can’t read it? 😉 )

          • Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you’re a misdocumenting MD), the law takes what is written over what was intended. As I must, in my day job in which my team reads most of every medical record created in the big tertiary care teaching hospital at which I work. Rarely, very rarely, are we allowed to send something back to an MD for correction. When we are, it involves a doc stating that he did a joint replacement on the left knee in one place and the right knee in another place. We are not permitted to send back gibberish for correction.

            I guess the assumption is that they make no mistakes.

            Granted, such mistakes probably won’t kill the patient (they’re after the fact), but it could, if referenced later and is a medication goof-up or something. And it could certainly come back later to bite them in the prat if there’s litigation. I’ve seen it happen.

            Which is why I’m retiring from my hospital job next spring, to write books. Depend on it, someday a scenario like this will make its way into one of my stories.

        • It wasn’t my FIRST thought. It was the first one that made much sense without rewriting.

          Take care.

  3. Those of us that hate talking to ourselves will keep ‘writing’ — or in my case pounding the keyboard … 😉

    • I edit as I go so I wasn’t happy with the results when I tried dictation. Much trouble, no benefit — except for casual stuff.

      • Yeah, that too … 😉

        Never mind the punctuation fun: “I I did not want a comma there, I wanted the word coma! Dang it, I wanted the ‘word’ period — not a dang period you stupid pile of short circuits!!”

        As they say YMMV

        • PLEASE, Allen – spew warnings?

          Diet Coke hurts when you have to keep from reacting to YOUR prose physically.

          • Sorry, in my younger days I read the BOfH, and learn never (never ever) to drink/eat while reading the works of others — lest I need to wipe down the monitor …

            (Let’s just say a common comment to the BOfH started with: “You owe me a new keyboard!” and let it go at that … 😉 )

  4. I do a lot of my writing sitting in a fairly busy diner late at night. Something about being surrounded by an undifferentiated buzz of people, and having a waiter pour caffeine on me every half hour, helps the ideas flow. (I think maybe it’s the caffeine.)

    Well, imagine trying to dictate in that environment. Even if your mike setup will pick up your voice and filter out 100% of the background noise, well, I don’t want everyone thinking of me as that funny man in the corner who keeps talking to himself.

    Besides, dictation software takes too long to train with unusual proper names and non-English words. And it never, never gets the punctuation right.

    • Wow, that takes me back. Writing in coffee shops at night, and in fast-food joints before I opened the bookstore in the morning. Lots of cheap, horrible coffee. It was wonderful.

      • Joining two answers…

        Tom –“helps the ideas flow. (I think maybe it’s the caffeine.)”

        Have you tried moving to the Med?

        Bridget –“Lots of cheap, horrible coffee. It was wonderful.”

        You guys are not going to convince me that what you do to coffee in the States is… vocational.

        Take care.

        • To be fair (as much as possible) to US coffee, before Howard Schultz bought Starbucks, most coffee here was undrinkable by today’s standards. In San Francisco you could buy a cappucino even in the 50s, and perhaps other cities with a large Italian-American population. Anywhere else, not so much.

          Mostly, we didn’t recognize that the coffee was undrinkable–after all, we were drinking it! By the early 90s coffee houses featuring decent coffee had proliferated to the point where good coffee was starting to enter North American consciousness. Seattle had become the new coffee capital. I moved here soon after, but even in Kearney, Nebraska, I’m pretty sure you can get good coffee now.

          Tea? Still abysmal.

          • What worries me is that you consider Starbucks (or, say, Seattle’s Best) drinkable. Which I may grant you, if we go survivalist [*]. But “coffee”?

            I assume there’s places with good coffee (it IS the States, we’re talking about). But I’d argue that it hasn’t entered the consciousness. I’ll give you I haven’t been to Seattle.

            Take care.

            [*] Quirky fact. That disclaimer in the corrugated board? “Liquids in this cup may be extremely hot”? Same one here (Spain). Still in English. I just hope no one sues them, because I think they just made themselves twice as liable. “Yes, we knew it was dangerous; we decided to use a foreign language, just because”.

            • I never said Starbucks is the benchmark for good coffee, only that its existence raised the bar. The bar was low. 🙂

              • One word: Rincewind.

                Take care.

              • @ Bridget

                Well, at least *$ isn’t selling that oh-so-hip cat crap coffee that costs $100/lb. FWIW, I’ll NEVER drink a cup of that stuff. I find the very idea nauseous.

                (Supposedly, this cat-like creature gobbles the coffee beans, which are “harvested” when they come out the rear end, then ground and brewed. Gotta wonder just how this “gourmet coffee idea” was, um, discovered and promulgated!)

  5. I didn’t know coffee could be made to taste delicious until my first trip to the UK in ’79. To say the least, my habits on brewing my own coffee changed radically.

    All hail to Kenya AA.

  6. No dictation here. I can express myself with written words but not with spoken words. My spoken speech goes like this most of the time: “Um, yeah, um, we need to do the thing with the thing, the thing, um, you know.” (“thing” not being a substitute for other words but what I really say 😛 ) My husband laughs at me and says, “And you’re a writer.” Yeah, I’m a writer, not a speaker. 😛 In fact, I dislike speaking out loud so much I’ll go to all kinds of lengths to avoid talking on the phone.

    • You’re in great company with the absolute refusal to use spoken language – my kids have to be hogtied if I want to Skype – and see them more than once a year – vs. texting me.

      And use the mobile device to TALK to someone (what we old people denominate phone calls) – you’re kidding, right?

      Sheesh.

    • I pretty close to absolutely refuse to call anyone. I’ll text, order pizza online, or find some other way around it even if it means a 20 minute walk.

      • Ah, people like me: hate to use the telephone. After Velcro, E-mail is my favorite invention. (Mostly)

  7. But what if someone stutters or has a lisp? 🙂

    Or both? 🙂 🙂

  8. James, in an earlier job I was a transcriptionist. I got a report of a surgery, of which I couldn’t understand more than half. I took it back to the surgeon, and said, in his native Spanish, “I’d have understood more if you’d dictated this en español!”

    Fortunately he had a sense of humor. And filled in all the blanks.

  9. Dictation software is horrible for those of us with non-standard accents.

    I had to share this skit: What happens when voice recognition meets the Scottish accent?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMS2VnDveP8

    • I LOVE that!

    • @ Shantnu

      “What happens when voice recognition meets the Scottish accent?”

      LOL. Software Crash! 🙂

    • as far as non-standard is concerned, add upon that an essential tremor and nothing technical understands remotely anything that is said. It’s something I fear I’ll have to endure someday, as the condition is genetic. I’ll be too shaky to type, unable to grip a pen, and Dragon won’t be able to understand me. So few advances are being made fast enough. I’ve only got another ten years before the condition will start to manifest in me, if I have it.

      And that was way more depressing than I intended. Sorry about that.

      Now the clip though was absolutely brilliant. Thanks for sharing!

  10. It’s a blessing for those of us with RSI. Save your arms and wrists while you’re still young, folks.

  11. BTW, Barbara Cartland dictated her books into a tape recorder while reposing in bed. Then her assistants collected the tapes and transcribed them.

    OK, I realize this isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of dictating books! 🙂

    But she was prolific!

  12. I use Dragon on my Mac and love it. It is never a “royal pain.” There are numerous authors on the Kboards Writers’ Café who talk about how great it is for them. Personally, I love how a story magically appears on the screen as I talk. It’s as if the act of my reading it makes it come into existence.

  13. About ten years ago I was in a bicycle accident and a surgeon had to put my shoulder back together. I was unable to type for several months. I managed with dictation software, but I hated it. First, I soon came to hate the sound of my own voice. Second, I was never satisfied with the results, which were difficult to edit. I think I am not suited to dictation.

    However, I learned to type with the Dvorak keyboard layout, which relieved a lot of the pain after I was healed enough to start typing again. I now always use Dvorak have far fewer repetitive stress issues in my hands than I used to.

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