Rscheearch Shmecsearch


In September 2003, the following paragraph thundered its way around the internet, and has been an urban myth ever since.

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a tatol mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

Like everyone else, I am amazed at the ease with which I can read this paragraph. It certainly is a testament to the flexibility of the human mind. But it does not indicate that we only use the first and last letters of a word, nor does it demonstrate that we read by whole word recognition.

The letter transformations used in the myth are not random, they were carefully selected. If the letters move further from their original location, it becomes much more difficult to read. The below example with reverse-ordered internal letters is much harder to read:

Anidroccg to rcraeseh at Cgdirbmae utisreviny

The pace at which we can recover the actual words in the myth is so fast that it seems instantaneous. It only takes a couple hundred milliseconds to recognize a correctly spelled word, so a 10% or even 100% increase in recognition time would not seem like much. But it does take people longer to recognize words when they are misspelled than when they are spelled correctly.

It’s also surprising that this would be used as evidence that we recognize words by their word shape and not by letter recognition. These letter transformations break up the pattern of ascending and descending letters that are supposedly used when recognizing word shapes. If anything the myth suggests that word shapes are not important because we can still readily recognize the words despite their change in word shape.

Reading psychologists have come to the consensus that we use a parallel letter recognition model to recognize words. Hopefully people put more trust in this easily referenced body of research rather than research by elusive researchers who believe there are two h’s in the word rscheearch.

Kevin Larson

Edit: update broken link

Edit: update image reference

Comments (21)

  1. tzagotta says:

    Pretty cool article, Kevin!

  2. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a tatol mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

    Taht is srot of ture, but it deos not tlel the wlohe sorty.  It is rieealtvly esay wtih sroht wrods, but not so esay wtih legonr wdros.  Msot cetonnt wdros in Esinglh are sveen leertts lnog or leognr — the mroe leretts terhe are in a wrod, the mroe dulcifift and caipcetmold it bmeecos to cletrorcy infietdy them wehn the ltrtees are ragnearerd.  Warhees, more diiivutnme and cmoomn wrdos lkie "blal" and "baer" raimen mltsoy ungnchead and esay to rizocenge, lgneor, less cmoomn wdros, like "pltlooiun" and "soulamitunes" caghne saillbattunsy to the pniot werhe rnciooitegn is srclceay pbsslioe.  Fmrrhtrouee, this atiibly smtes form a garet deal of enpicerexe rindaeg cretolcry slelepd wdros — olny plopee who can adrealy raed pelictroinfy can do this tsak.  Tihs tirck does not reeavl mcuh aoubt the pscroes of lnnreaig to raed — it only ietaindcs that hhligy slielkd rrdeaes are so pectacred wtih txet tehy can omoercve moinr informieepcts (epshaims on the word "moinr") in the pnirt to aesccs mnnaeig.

    Oh, and by the way, terhe nveer was any rcsaeerh of tihs srot ccountded at Cridbagme or any oehtr usrivetniy. Taht prat is ceepomlty urutne.

    (scroll down for a translation … If you need one…)

    That is sort of true, but it does not tell the whole story.  It is relatively easy with short words, but not so easy with longer words.  Most content words in English are seven letters long or longer — the more letters there are in a word, the more difficult and complicated it becomes to correctly identify them when the letters are rearranged.  Whereas, more diminutive and common words like "ball" and "bear" remain mostly unchanged and easy to recognize, longer, less common words, like "pollution" and "simultaneous" change substantially to the point where recognition is scarcely possible.  Furthermore, this ability stems from a great deal of experience reading correctly spelled words — only people who can already read proficiently can do this task.  This trick does not reveal much about the process of learning to read — it only indicates that highly skilled readers are so practiced with text they can overcome minor imperfections (emphasis on the word "minor") in the print to access meaning.

    Oh, and by the way, there never was any research of this sort conducted at Cambridge or any other university. That part is completely untrue.

  3. Kevin Liao says:

    it is actually a very important aspect in recognizing Chinese characters.

    (Driving on the freeway in Taiwan, I can recognize the words on the signs much farther than doing the same with English on the 405 and it has nothing to do with font size)

    The amount of white space around the character (ex. upper right, center, or multiple regions) can tell you a lot about the character.

    On the other hand, so can the strokes (ex. orientation, direction, length, number of…)

  4. fontblog says:

    I’ve previously talked about the Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy hoax. The study described…

  5. CodeObsessed says:

    In particular, I don’t. Lots of times other developers come over to me and look confused as they see

  6. Natalie says:

    I was doing just fine reading the entirety of this page having trouble only with the uncommon words until I had to look the translation for "practiced"… above you have "pectacred", which has an extra "e", and is missing an "I".

    I must add that I think I am dislexic, as when I type I usually transpose lettrs, combine words, (hte, adn, withe), even when I write, I will write the first lettr of the next word before finishing the previous word. Maybe, jsut maybe, this brain/hand misfire I’m having actually helps me with reading 90% of the above example.

  7. Vanessa Noble says:

    I thought this was quit interesting articles, it just goes to show that writers should be precise in what they want to convey to the reader. If the messages are not clear then the information,take on another meaning.  I mentally, and on paper tried the excerises.  

  8. This was a little comical.  These excerpts just goes to show how important it is for the writer to check what leaves his or her desk.  Many times the writer, assumes that the reader know what he or she means.  

  9. This was a little comical.  These excerpts just goes to show how important it is for the writer to check what leaves his or her desk.  Many times the writer, assumes that the reader know what he or she means.  

  10. DJ says:

    These last few comments are funny as hell…

  11. Rajesh says:

    Why is there an extra ch in the word research?

    rscheearch???

    Of all the translations i hav seen all have translated it as research but what about the extra "ch"? did it gt anything to do?

    or is it not the word research??

    can someone plz clarify me asap…

  12. vivek says:

    Hello, I love your article. This is a great site and I wanted to post a little note to let you know, nice job! Thanks

  13. FreeFall says:

    I had no trouble with the internal reversing. It may be harder for some, but not for all.

  14. Phil E. Drifter says:

    Snopes FAIL

    stop clogging my internets with extraneous information!

  15. Andy says:

    Thank you for sending this out.  I knew that this was false and I have seen it a few places.

  16. peterpan says:

    rscheearch???

    i thought it is researcher………………..and i found out that it is research because of the artticle that say something about the technique to read it

  17. Borkur says:

    I wrote this little Firefox extension after reading this article: addons.mozilla.org/…/confuscator

    makes it easy to test this theory for different languages as well …

  18. Nick says:

    yeah you cant say "like everyone else" cause i have a hard time reading it all the time when stuff is wriiten like that.. its just really annoying, same with using using numbers for letters, what the hell who does that xD?