Only You Can Read This? False

posted by : Jon Kroupa on 11/08/2011
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Every three months or so I get an email that contains one of these types of "sentences."

7H15 M3554G3 53RV35 7O PR0V3 H0W 0UR M1ND5 C4N D0 4M4Z1NG 7H1NG5! 1MPR3551V3 7H1NG5! 1N 7H3 B3G1NN1NG 17 WA5 H4RD BU7 N0W, 0N 7H15 LIN3 Y0UR M1ND 1S R34D1NG 17 4U70M471C4LLY W17H 0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17, B3 PROUD! 0NLY C3R741N P30PL3 C4N R3AD 7H15. PL3453 F0RW4RD 1F U C4N R34D 7H15.

Or this more popular one:

Olny srmat poelpe can. I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm.

Both of these (and others like them) make wild claims about how only certain people can read them, or or 26 people can read them, or only "smart" people can read them. This is completely false. I have never met anyone who could not understand these sentences. Anyone with a basic understanding of English is going to be able to decypher these sentences. Why? Because they are specifically written to be easily understood.

Matt Davis, a researcher who actually works at Cambridge University, has written up quite a bit how these memes work.

He and his colleagues came up with 7 reasons why these structures work and are understood universally among English speakers. (This list appears 50% down through the post, just under the Polish verion).

His sample sentence:

the rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm... the rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without problem

  1. Short words are easy - 2 or 3 letter words don't change at all. The only change that is possible in a 4 letter words is to swap the order of the middle letters which doesn't cause too much difficulty (see 4).

  2. Function words (the, be, and, you etc.) stay the same - mostly because they are short words, see (1). This really helps the reader by preserving the grammatical structure of the original, helping you to work out what word is likely to come next. This is especially crucial for reading jumbled text - words that are predictable are going to be easier to read in this situation.

  3. Of the 15 words in this sentence, there are 8 that are still in the correct order. However, as a reader you might not notice this since many of the words that remain intact are function words, which readers don't tend to notice when reading. For instance, when people are asked to detect individual letters in a sentence, they are more likely to miss letters in function words.

  4. Transpositions of adjacent letters (e.g. porbelm for problem) are easier to read than more distant transpositions (e.g. pborlem). We know from research in which people read words presented very briefly on a computer screen that the exterior letters of words are easier to detect than middle letters - confirming one of the ideas present in the meme. We also know that position information for letters in the middle of words is more difficult to detect and that those errors that are made tend to be transpositions.

  5. None of the words that have reordered letters create another word (wouthit vs witohut). We know from existing work, that words that can be confused by swapping interior letters (e.g. salt and slat) are more difficult to read. To make an easy to read jumbled word you should therefore avoid making other words.

  6. Transpositions were used that preseve the sound of the original word (e.g. toatl vs ttaol for total). This will assist in reading, since we often attend to the sound of the words even when reading for meaning[.]

  7. The text is reasonably predictable. For instance, given the first few words of the sentence, you can guess what words are coming next (even with very little information from the letters in the word). We know that context plays an important role in understanding speech that is distorted or presented in noise, the same is probably true for written text that has been jumbled[.]

Here are his examples of three sentences that deviate from these rules:

1 A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont near the UN haduqertares in Bagahdd on Mnoday kilinlg the bmober and an Irqai polcie offceir

2 Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs

3 A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur

All three sentences were randomised according to the "rules" described in the meme. The first and last letters have stayed in the same place and all the other letters have been moved. However, I suspect that your experience is the same as mine, which is that the texts get progressively more difficult to read.

These sentences are sometimes clever, and can be interesting to read. I just disagree with them perpetuating this myth that only intelligent people can read them, and because YOU can read it, you must be intelligent. (News flash, stupid people will be able to read them too).

In constrast, dazzle people with how difficult my statements are to read:

Rtpsauin retinas asmlot elvslcxuiey the cieotvllce wkros of Saaeerskpe. Tfrrhoeee in caaiooobrtlln wtih the dtmrnpaeet of rrvceoey tgrouhh caestindnle aiiiecvtts we hlighy eecpxt to get tehm soon.

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