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.
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.