Opening access: entering text without a keyboard

No one knows how common are problems entering text using a standard keyboard.

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is worryingly frequent, and refers to a loose group of conditions which are associated with keyboard and mouse use, some of which result from over-use or excessive adoption of poor wrist posture. Sometimes included within the spectrum of RSI are a smaller group of conditions caused by local damage to the nerves at the wrist, or carpal tunnel syndrome.

If it is of any consolation, the Italian physician Ramazzini, the ‘father’ of Occupational Medicine, first described RSI over three centuries ago – not in keyboard or mouse users, of course, but in musicians and clerks.

Although some of these conditions, particularly carpal tunnel syndrome, can be ‘cured’, most impose a life-long limitation on further keyboard and mouse use. For these, and anyone else who has problems using normal input devices, alternative means of controlling your Mac and entering text into it are valuable, if not essential.

Text from print

A depressingly large amount of text is still typed in from print. In that circumstance, you should take a careful look at the benefits of optical character recognition (OCR) on scanned images, which I have examined fully in this article. Although it is still not perfect, you may be able to limit your keyboard use to correcting the occasional error in OCRed pages, which could be a great improvement.

Text from speech


iPhone users will already, normally, have had experience of Siri, Apple’s new-generation voice recognition technology. Although Siri as such does not exist (yet) in OS X, its equivalent is in the Dictation & Speech pane of System Preferences. You can also get there through the Dictation section in Accessibility.


Audio input would normally be set in the Input tab of the Sound pane, but Dictation & Speech handles sound input separately from the Sound pane. It is not affected at all by the input volume (gain), level, or noise reduction settings in the Sound pane. Indeed, as you talk into the microphone, dictation input level is indicated by a white bar which rises in the microphone icon, in Dictation & Speech.

All iMacs and most other models have built-in microphones, which are fine for occasional use. If you use dictation often, particularly if it is your principal means of entering text, then you should consider getting a proper headset with a microphone, which will plug into your Mac’s audio input and output sockets, or a wireless headset. A good wireless headset can range between £40 and £110 or so, and models are available from Plantronics, Jabra, Logitech, and others.

OS X offers two different modes of dictation: regular requires you to be online, as with Siri, as your speech is sent over the Internet to Apple’s servers, where it is converted to text, and sent back. This option is good for slower Macs, and only works with short sections of dictation.

By far the better is Enhanced Dictation, in which the recognition and conversion to text is performed on your Mac. This eliminates the need for an Internet connection, but is more demanding on your Mac’s processor. It can also cope with fairly continuous speech; because the text appears in real time, you can time your speech according to progress in conversion to text. The first time that you enable Enhanced Dictation, your Mac is likely to download additional software for the voice recognition engine, a process which can also occur if you add another language.

Dictation is not just language-specific, but regional too. If you want to dictate in Spanish, you have to choose between Mexico, Spain, and United States versions of the language. For English, you have the option of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US. Altogether, El Capitan now supports dictation in more than 30 different languages, which is rather impressive, I feel. Sadly, if you are having problems with it recognising your regional UK accent, it is most unlikely to cope any better if you switch to a different region.

The only other option in Dictation is the keyboard shortcut which toggles dictation, by default pressing the Function key twice.

Unlike some older voice recognition systems (and like Siri), there is no training required. Apple claims that voice recognition improves with use, but it is unclear how it can ‘learn’ without being corrected, and there is no facility to correct its errors. It is clear, though, that you learn how to get the best out of it, if you persevere.

Using Enhanced Dictation is simple. Turn it on in Dictation & Speech, bring the document window in which you want to insert text to the front, position the cursor at the correct location, then press the shortcut (default Fn key twice). The microphone floating window will appear, in which your audio input level is shown, and away you go.

Watch the text as it is recognised and added to the document. Time your dictation so that it is smooth, but there are only small backlogs in recognition. If something goes wrong, and you dictate the wrong words, don’t get flustered, just go back and speak the correct ones slowly and carefully. When you have finished the section, press the shortcut to stop dictation, and correct what you have just entered.

In use, with clear speech, little background noise, and ensuring that each word is spoken separately, I can manage 45 errors per thousand words on text which is not technical, but equally not everyday casual speech either. This is a higher rate of error than can be achieved using modern OCR software on good scanned text, and probably higher than you would achieve using a keyboard. But if it makes it possible for you to enter the text, it is probably worth the time making those corrections.

Enhanced Dictation supports a good range of punctuation and other marks. These include (for UK English):

  • all caps, new paragraph, new line
  • comma ,
  • fullstop .
  • semicolon ;
  • colon :
  • exclamationmark !
  • questionmark ?
  • openbracket ( closebracket )
  • opencurly { closecurly }
  • opensquare [ closesquare ]
  • slash / backslash \
  • hyphen – minussign – dash –
  • openquotes ” closequotes “
  • singlequote ‘ beginsinglequote ‘ endsinglequote ‘
  • andsign & atsign @ poundsign £ eurosign € dollarsign $ centsign ¢ plussign + equalsign = trademarksign ™ copyrightsign ©
  • eeacute É eegrave È eedieresis Ë youdieresis Ü yougrave Ù
  • asterisk * ellipsis …
  • smileyface 🙂 frownyface 😦

You may be able to coax other accented letters and symbols out of it too: Apple provides full lists here for UK English, and here for US English. You can also change the language of that page to show commands for other languages.

If you find it useful, another important purchase is a document stand on which to place notes, handwritten pages, and other material which you want to use when dictating. Place this so that your voice is still good for the microphone (if not using a headset), and you can see the display in comfort, without having to alter your head position to glance from one to the other.

Non-keyboard control

If you do not wish to, or cannot, use your keyboard and/or mouse to control your Mac, there are additional options in the Dictation section of the Accessibility pane. These work when you have enabled Enhanced Dictation in the Dictation & Speech pane. Flip back to Accessibility, select Dictation on the left, and you will see a button for Dictation Commands… Click on that to enable and customise voice commands.

Other sections of Interacting in the Accessibility pane support customisation of normal input devices, and for other devices in Switch Control.

You may also wish to consider the Commanders available in VoiceOver, which extend trackpad, keypad, and keyboard control. These are accessed through the VoiceOver Utility, as described here.