If Yuo’re Albe To Raed Tihs, You Might Have Typoglycemia

Ever heard of typoglycemia? Even if you haven’t, chances are you’ll recognize one of the viral puzzles used to demonstrate the phenomenon. Starting around 2003, an email began to circulate claiming that scrambled English words are just as easy to read as the original words.

However, as interesting as the original email was, it didn’t actually tell the whole truth. There’s more to scrambled words than meets the eye.

What is typoglycemia?

That viral email tested our ability to read scrambled words. Here’s what it looks like:

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.

Could you read it? Even with a mistake in this viral email (the letters in rscheearch cannot spell researcher), the truth is that most fluent English speakers can read and understand it.

The word-scrambling phenomenon has a punny name: typoglycemia, playing with typo and glycemia (the condition of having low blood sugar). Typoglycemia can refer to to the phenomenon in which words can be read despite being jumbles, or it can refer to the ability to read such texts. Still, though the word may sometimes be referenced in actual research, it’s not a formal term, nor is it all that commonly used outside the context of such memes.

Is typoglycemia real or a trick?

Does it take you nanoseconds to solve a Word Jumble? No? While your brain can breeze through some word scrambles, it’s more complicated than that viral email suggests.

Matt Davis, a researcher at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University, helped us sort it out. Here’s what Davis believes 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.

There’s a reason we call them “sight words.” Here are some great sight word activities to help your child learn to read and write.

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. However, it’s much more complicated than that.

What makes a scrambled word easier to read?

Here are some other factors a jumbled passage needs in order for most people 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 jumbled, or else the reader will likely struggle.
3. Switching (or transposing) the letters makes a big difference. Letters beside each other in a word can be switched without much creating much difficulty for the reader. When letters farther apart are switched, it’s harder. For example, look at porbelm vs. pelborm (for “problem”).
4. We understand scrambled words better when their sounds are preserved: toatl vs. talot (for “total”).
5. Here’s a big one: the passage is readable because it’s predictable—that is, the topic is logically explained, with context providing very good clues about what words will be used.

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. When we scramble it up in another way (such as “ancdircog”), it can be much less recognizable.

All told, we’re code-making machines (we speak the code of English) and we’re wired to find meaning in text, in part by looking at contextual cues. However, the codes can only be scrambled so much before we get lost.

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 can absolutely make or break our comprehension of a word.

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