Yuo’re Albe to Raed Tihs – But Only Up To A Point: Why?

Remember that word-scrambled email that’s (re)circulated through virtually everyone’s inbox at some point between 2003 and now?

Here’s a reminder:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Jog your brain? We’ve received this more than once over the years. It makes us feel smart, and the beauty of it is we don’t have to be (pretty much every fluent English-speaker can read and understand it). The word-scrambling phenomenon even has a punny name: Typoglycemia, playing mischievously with “typo” and the condition of having low blood sugar.

As cool as this phenomenon is, the email actually doesn’t tell you the whole truth. There’s more to scrambled words than meets the eye; does it take you nanoseconds to solve the Word Jumble in the newspaper? No?

While your brain can breeze through some word-scrambles, it’s more complicated than that click-bait email suggests.

Matt Davis, a researcher at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University, will help us sort it out. Here’s what they believe the email got right: unless you have a rare brain disorder, people read words as whole units, not letter-by-letter. That’s one of the factors explaining why we can ‘magically’ read the message.

But here’s where Davis reminds us why the daily Word Jumble still manages to scramble our brains for breakfast. That trending email led us to believe all we need is for “the first and last letters to be in the right place” and nothing else matters. Actually a lot ‘else’ matters.

Here are some other factors a jumbled passage needs in order for everyone to easily read it:

1. The words need to be relatively short.
2. Function words (be, the, a and other words that provide grammatical structure) can’t be messed up, otherwise the reader struggles.
3. Switching (or transposing) the letters makes a big difference. Letters beside each other in a word can be switched without much difficulty for the reader to understand. When letters farther apart are switched, it’s harder. Take porbelm vs. pelborm (for “problem”).
4. We understand scrambled words better when their sounds are preserved: toattl vs. talot (for “total”).
5. Here’s a big one: the passage is readable because it’s predictable (especially because we’ve seen it so many times)!

Other factors play into it as well, like preserving double letters. For example, in the word “According,” the scrambled email keeps the “cc” intact (“Aoccdrnig”). Double letters are contextual markers that give good hints. But we could also scramble it up this way: “Ancdircng.” Breaking up the “cc” makes it harder, right?

All told, we’re code-making machines (we speak the code of English) and we’re wired to find meaning out of nonsense, in part by looking at contextual cues. However the codes can only be scrambled to a certain degree before we get lost. Try your hand at two hard-scrambled passages below, which prove your brain needs more than just the first and last letters of a scrambled word to read it quickly.

With these, you’ll see why our brains can only handle typoglycemia to a point. The answers at the bottom; try not to cheat!

  • A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur.
  • In the Vcraiiton are, a levloy eamlred geren, pirlaalty frmoueltad form asirnec, was uesd in fcaibrs and ppaluor falrol hresesdeads.

The first example is from that blog post by Matt Davis. The second is our re-scrambling of a fascinating Jezebel lead. And they’re not easy! Research shows that typos definitely interfere with reading speed. (There’s a reason we have spell-checkers!) Tricky jumble puzzles that can take hours to complete also prove that, in the end, letter order and spelling absolutely make or break our comprehension of a word.

Ready for the answers?
A doctor has admitted the manslaughter of a teenage cancer patient who died after a hospital drug blunder.
In the Victorian era, a lovely emerald green, partially formulated from arsenic, was used in fabrics and popular floral headdresses.

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