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I read this sometime ago,

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

I'm guessing that the Cambridge research probably doesn't exist, but is it true that we can normally understand a sentence whose letters are scrambled in this way?

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I've never read about this where someone was able to definitively trace this to a specific study. That part is probably a hoax. But we can understand this sentence quite well, so the idea seems to work, at least some of the time. Here is some discussion about it on MetaFilter. –  Kosmonaut Jan 13 '11 at 4:11
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I just tried this with a paragraph of a Wikipedia article on a Dutch poet (Vondel) I knew only so much about, in Dutch—my native language. It turns out that it was very difficult. Most sentences took at least twice as long to read, and there were several that I couldn't figure out at all, mostly because there was a significant number of words I failed to recognize even after some staring. An important reason is probably that Dutch has no spaces in compound words, so longer words. Also that this was a fairly unfamiliar subject, and that it was written in a style less simple than that of the OP. –  Cerberus Jan 13 '11 at 6:26
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From Wiki, on the poet Vondel: "Aeftr the aersrt, trail and the iamitdmee bhdeniaeg of the msot itpmnarot ciialivn ldaeer of the Satets of Holalnd Jahon van Oadvnellbnreet (1169) at the cmmanod of his, by tehn, emeny Prnice Mituars of Nsasau, and the Soynd of Drot (1166–1189), the Cntliaivss had bmceoe the dvcsieie rluoiegis peowr in the Rlupbiec. Pilubc wrhsoip of Cochaliitsm, Abaiapnstm and Aasnniiimrm was form tehn on oiailfcfly feodrdbin; agutohlh woirhsp in hddein houess of pyrear was not preuecsted." This is easier than the Dutch text, but still much harder than the OP's, right? –  Cerberus Jan 13 '11 at 6:36
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Here's What You Ought to Know with the scoop: youtube.com/watch?v=TNStNUizxhE –  Jon Purdy Jan 13 '11 at 6:37
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@Marcus: Damn. But do you agree that it is harder than the Cambridge text? Or did you only have to read it once without slowing down much? I had to think about "bhdeniaeg" for a while because it wasn't what I expected; it took me a long time to get "agutohlh", because of the preceding semicolon; and it took me several reads to get "preuecsted" because I had already dismissed "prosecuted" subconsciously and was looking for entirely different combinations. How much longer do you think this took you? For me, at least 3 times as long as the original, possibly longer. –  Cerberus Jan 13 '11 at 17:34
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4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Sort of, but not exactly. In addition to the languagehat post, here are the actual facts "according to a researcher at a Cambridge University". (That page is itself a summary of actual research on related matters; my summary will be inadequate.)

While it is true that (most) people don't read words letter-by-letter, and we can cope with some amount of jumbling, this happens through word shape and disrupting the order of letters can significantly affect the word shape. That is, it is not true that "The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm". Rather, there are several properties of your paragraph that make it readable:

  • In most of the words, the letters are only slightly transposed, not jumbled beyond recognition. For instance, "doesn't" is made "deosn't" rather than "dn'oset", "problem" is made "porbelm" rather than "pebrolm". If you try generating actually random transformations of the paragraph, you'll find it a bit harder to read.
  • 33 of the 67 words are 1-, 2- or 3-letter words that are in exactly the right order, and another 12 are 4-letter words in which only a transposition is possible. The short words tend to be the function words so essential to meaning; paragraphs consisting of predominantly longer words would appear harder to understand.
  • It is written in lowercase; if it were written in uppercase a lot more of the word shape would be lost. (This is also why uppercase is harder to read in general: all word shapes are rectangles.)

The page considers the sentence "The sprehas had ponits and patles". How would you read this?

The sherpas had pitons and plates.
The shapers had points and pleats.
The seraphs had pintos and petals.
The sphaers had pinots and palets.
The sphears had potins and peltas.

And many more.

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I think it also matters a great deal what the paragraph is about and how it is written: a familiar subject and simple language also help a lot. –  Cerberus Jan 14 '11 at 15:59
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It gtes mcuh hedrar wehn you hvae legnor wdros and you slpmiy rsrevee all the ioiretnr lrettes.

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I found double letters also made it harder with long words: It can be hrad wehn sllepnig wrdos in a dieerffnt laggunae –  dpmguise Jan 13 '11 at 4:16
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Case in point, I can't seem to be able to parse ioiretnr... –  Eldroß Jan 13 '11 at 9:34
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@eldro interior, I think –  Louis Rhys Sep 13 '11 at 9:01
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It is generally true, but I can think of some caveats:

1) It won't work well with all uppercase letters, as it is the shapes of the words that are our cues. All-uppercase words are essentially rectangles.

AOCCDRNIG TO A RSCHEEARCH AT CMABRIDGE UINERVTISY, IT DEOSN'T MTTAER IN WAHT OREDR THE LTTEERS IN A WROD ARE, THE OLNY IPRMOETNT TIHNG IS TAHT FRIST AND LSAT LTTEER IS AT THE RGHIT PCLAE. THE RSET CAN BE A TOATL MSES AND YOU CAN SITLL RAED IT WOUTHIT PORBELM. TIHS IS BCUSEAE WE DO NOT RAED ERVEY LTETER BY IT SLEF BUT THE WROD AS A WLOHE.

Still doable, especially having already read it once, but not as easy.

2) Following from #1, distinctive letters that give the words their shape should be in or very near to their "normal" location. If you notice from the text you posted, most instances of i, t, d, l, p, g, h, etc. appear at or within one character position from normal. The last word, "wlohe" does not, but instead swaps the tall l and h to give the word the same overall shape.

3) This works when the words are in a meaningful sequence, because our minds have a good idea of the subset of words that can follow any other, given the context and our understanding of syntax. We can further narrow it down by shape, and finally by letter, especially first and last. Out of context, these become anagrams, and suddenly rather more difficult to decipher.

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No, it's true. Most people can process the words regardless of interior order. I read that paragraph almost as fast as I would normally, as I'm sure most people here did.

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Was half way through before I noticed the scramble... –  dpmguise Jan 13 '11 at 3:59
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Interestingly, this is kind of how we process oral language as well. We don't hear individual words perfectly, just a bunch of sounds that more or less resemble words which we arrange in a logical meaning depending on context. We post-process whole statements, so when someone says (or slurs) "wergnahaftaseeboutthat" really fast we still can pick up "We're going to have to see about that" with no trouble. –  Robusto Jan 13 '11 at 4:15
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