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Six tips for mastering Siri

Turn the voice control features in the iPhone 4S into an impressive productivity tool

Siri, the artificially intelligent assistant built into the iPhone 4S, is fun to show off. You can joke around with Siri, scoring funny replies if you ask it to beam you up, open the pod bay doors, or share its favorite color. But Siri offers more than just a source of amusement: It can also help you get more things done with your iPhone. Here's how to master Siri's nuances, turning it from a parlor trick to impressive productivity tool.

Speak your punctuation

Unless you frequently dictate missives, reciting your punctuation aloud doesn't feel quite natural. But without it, any time Siri transcribes what you say, your text will resemble a texting tween's stream of consciousness. Thus, when Siri asks you what you'd like your new email to say, speak like this:

Dear Jason comma new paragraph I'm working on that Siri story we discussed comma and I expect it will be ready soon exclamation point

Other dictation instructions that Siri can handle include:

Saying all caps will make the next word uppercase, while all caps on and all caps off to toggle caps lock;

Saying cap will capitalize a single world, as in: I named my dog cap Cat;

Speaking the names of punctuation marks and symbols--ampersand, asterisk, open/close parenthesis, em dash, percent, copyright, registered, section, dollar, cent, degree sign--will make them appear;

Saying smiley, frowny, and winky (optionally with face) will create the appropriate emoticon.

(For the rest of the examples in this article, we'll just include the punctuation instead of spelling it out, to make things easier to read.)

Use cue words

When you trigger Siri, either by holding down the Home button or lifting your iPhone to your ear, it's ready to listen. Sometimes, though, Siri listens without really hearing. Too often, I've been burned by Siri when giving it instructions like:

iMessage Dan Moren... I'm testing Siri, and thus you have to suffer.

Siri faithfully transcribes my instruction, and then replies somewhat unhelpfully: "Okay, I can send a text to Dan Moren for you. What would you like it to say?" I appreciate that Siri knows that I want to send an iMessage, and knows whom I want to send it to, but it's frustrating to recite your message only to have Siri ignore it. But it is possible to start and dictate a new iMessage (or text) in a single step. Just add a cue word or phrase like that, say, or tell him/her.

iMessage Dan Moren that I'm testing Siri, and thus you have to suffer.

Remember not to treat Siri as it it's actually relaying a message. If you say: iMessage Dan Moren that he is in my article a lot; Siri will faithfully transcribe your message starting with "He is" instead of the more applicable "You are."

Change Siri's mistakes via speech

Siri's imperfect. Sometimes, it doesn't properly transcribe what you're saying; my message to Dan above came out "I'm testing Siri, and dust who have to suffer." That may well be true, but it's not exactly the message I was hoping to convey. When Siri tells me my message is ready and then asks if I'm ready to send it, I can correct the message pretty easily:

Change the message to I'm testing Siri, and thus you have to suffer.

You can instruct Siri that way when it creates Reminders, emails, calendar events, notes, and the like, too. Even better: When the on-screen keyboard appears as you edit the transcribed text, you can of course use the microphone button to get your iPhone to start taking dictation as you edit your transcribed text. It's meta, but it works.

If you're driving or unable to look at the screen for any reason, you can instruct Siri to read back your transcribed message before it's sent, to prevent any awkward, embarrassing, or confusing errors. When it asks you to save or send (your iMessage, email, Reminder...), just say "Read it to me" first, and you'll hear the content read back to you. Then you can change it, save it, or send it with Siri, as needed.

Edit Siri's transcriptions

Suppose you say this:

iMessage Dan Moren Yours is the winningest smile I've seen in years.

The mistake, of course, is that you forgot a cue word; Siri will note only that you want to send an iMessage to Dan, but not the content of the message you'd like to send. If you'd like to avoid repeating yourself when Siri asks for clarification on what message you'd actually like to send him, you can instead scroll back up to where Siri transcribed your instructions incorrectly.

Tap on the mis-transcribed text, and it becomes editable. I inserted a "that" between "Moren" and "Yours" and then tapped Done. Siri re-processes the corrected instruction, and this time knows just what you were trying to say.

Name your friends

So long as you use real words, you can tell Siri about important people in your life in fun ways. You probably already know you can tell Siri about connections like Lauren Friedman is my wife. But you can also add fancier connections like "Father-in-law," "best friend," and "nemesis."

I told Siri Philip Michaels is my boss, which Siri understood (though it saved him as my manager). Now, when I say iMessage my boss that he's a constant delight to work for, Siri knows just what to do.

At first, I ran into issues with this feature; Siri just couldn't keep my relationships straight. The problem? I had multiple records for myself in my iPhone's address book (from iCloud experimentation gone wrong); removing the duplicate records cleared things up for Siri right away.

The relationships you tell Siri about get added to your own address book entry for yourself. You can add them manually by going to your own record in your iPhone's Contacts app, tapping Edit, and then tapping to add or edit fields in the relationship section.

Know what you can say

You may have come across lengthy lists of things you can say to Siri. For instance, after receiving an iMessage, adding a "Reply to" in a message--Reply to Dan Moren, I agree completely--will create your response. Saying Note to self: Read more of Lex Friedman's Macworld stories will create an appropriate entry in the Notes app. And Show me January 8 will summon up your calendar for that day.

Here are other advanced instructions that Siri handles with aplomb:

What day of the week was November 28, 1980?

Remind me to order iTunes gift cards two days before Hannukah.

How many days until New Year's?

Make an appointment named 'Post Holiday Call' for three days after Christmas at 10am with Jason Snell.

Reschedule my meeting with Jason Snell to January 8 at 2 p.m.

When is my next meeting?

What time is it in Jerusalem?

What time is sunset in Tucson, Arizona?

Mail my wife about Dinner tonight and say Would you like me to bring home Chinese?

Add "The Snuggie Sutra" to my 'Books to buy' note.

Remind me to pick up milk when I leave here.

What's the current outside temperature?

How high did AAPL get today?

What did the market do today?

Senior associate editor Dan Moren contributed to this report.

Staff writer Lex Friedman is listed in Dan Moren's iPhone as his protégé, against Lex's will.


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