In response to my previous post on word jumbles, Tibor Machan sent me this jumble:
Almtiedtdy, the eniaimtoiln of tmtnrileeeakg furad and the piiibroothn asnaigt dipeevcte and aviubse tmtnieeeakg atcs or pcaiecrts are sfiacinngirt pilbuc ceornncs.
I readily concede that I have no idea what it says. So what is the difference between this jumble and the ever-so-readable one? In the comments on my previous post, Tim pointed us to this excellent explanation by Matt Davis of the facts of the matter. Based upon his research into the subject, the author concludes that the brain can compensate for some jumbles, but is not as flexible as claimed in the original jumble:
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.
Matt disputes that merely the placement first and last letters determine whether a word can be easily read or not by asking us to compare these three sentences:
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
Matt then comments:
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. If you get stuck, the sentences are linked to the original unscrambled texts.
Hopefully, these demonstrations will have convinced you that in some cases it can be very difficult to make sense of sentences with jumbled up words. Clearly, the first and last letter is not the only thing that you use when reading text. If this really was the case, how would you tell the difference between pairs of words like “salt” and “slat”?
So what really determines the readability of jumbled words? Using the sentence “The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm” as his example, Matt suggests these criteria:
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.
One explanation of this property of the reading system is that it results from the fact that the position of an exterior letter is less easily confused with adjacent letters. There is only direction in which an exterior letter can move, and there are fewer adjacent letters to ‘mask’ an exterior letter. Both of these properties emerge very naturally from a neural network model in which letters are identified at different positions in an artifical retina.
The account proposed by Richard Shillcock and colleagues, also suggests another mechanism that could be at work in the meme. They propose a model of word recognition in which each word is split in half since the information at the retina is split between the two hemispheres of the brain when we read. In some of the simulations of their model, Richard Shillcock simulates the effect of jumbling letters in each half of the word. It seems that keeping letters in the appropriate half of the word, reduces the difficulty of reading jumbled text. This approach was used in generating example (1) above, but not for (2) or (3).
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 preserve 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.