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Does Letter Order Matter?

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You’ve probably seen the internet meme about word order – but is it true? Does the order of letters in a word matter, or can people read a jumble just as quickly as a proper sentence?

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You’ve probably seen the meme going around about this. It reads something like:

“I cdn'uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy” yadda yadda yadda. You may have read about this online, and seen it cited as a study from Cambridge University.

However – or should I say Hwovere – there’s no such study. It doesn’t exist.

The meme is one of the innumerable things masquerading as a fact on the internet. But unlike, say, the idea that the Nazis escaped into some underground kingdom and built UFOS, the concept of letter order does have a little bit of truth to it.

Dennis Norris, a researcher at Cambridge’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, did manage to track down some earlier research on word order from Nottingham University.

A fellow named Graham Rawlinson showed that randomizing letters in the middle of words had “little or no effect” on the ability of readers to understand the text, so long as the first and final two letters of the word are in the same place. This was never published in a study, just as a letter sent to a magazine called New Scientist in 1999. That’s probably the grain of truth that led to the meme.

But the meme itself has a few wild inaccuracies. First, letter order does matter, in that it affects the readability of a phrase or passage.

One study measured the eye movements of readers as they perused sentences with transposed letters – you know, like switching the e and a in “sweat”. They found the reading rate decreased by 11% for words with internally switched letters, by 36% if the switch was at the beginning of a word, and by 26% if it was at the end of a phrase.

Second, the legibility of a jumbled word or phrase heavily depends on whether the 2, 3, or 4 letter words are also jumbled - at, you, soul, go, for, etc. If we hold to Rawlinson’s first proposed rule – that the first and last two letters must stay the same – then we see that some words just can’t be jumbled. They are unjumbleable, a word I just made up, because it’s a lot of fun to say. …”unjumbleable”.

(Side note, while we’re talking about neologisms, or new, made up terms, you might hear this ability to read jumbled phrases called “typoglycemia”. It’s a buzzword, not a legit scientific term, and as of recording you’re not going to read it in any medical journals.)

Your brain takes in information continually, and the emphasis is on speed. So, when you’re reading, your brain gathers just enough information to know what word you’re looking at.

In Dennis Norris’s example, you might be reading the letters “r, e, a, d” and not be sure whether the letters go in the order “read” or “raed”. But now there’s no point! “Eureka,” screams that creepy genius in your head, “If it’s a word, it must be ‘read’!”

Marta Kurtas, over at the Center for Research in Language at the University of California, San Diego, believes context is the primary factor. When we have a context, we use it to pre-activate the areas of our brain corresponding to what we expect.

If we scan someone’s brain while they hear a sound that leads them to expect another specific sound, we’ll see the person’s brain acting as if it’s already hearing that next sound. This works with letters and words, too – but it’s not perfect. Your brain processes all the letters of a word at once, using them as context for each other.

That’s why you can also read words W1TH NUMB3RS 1N PLAC3 0F L3773RS. The letter-like appearance, in context, overrides their actual status as numbers.

So there you have it – the ability to read jumbled words isn’t rare, and your brain is more than up to the task. However, it takes a little bit longer to suss things out.


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