Writer's toolkit

14th November 2003 at 00:00
This one is partly for the email junkies, and partly for people who wonder about spelling. In September, the chatterers on email started to send each other this passage (or something like it - it mutated): 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.

Fascinating, eh? Maybe all this stuff about spelling being important is nonsense - it may be important to examiners and school-teachers, but ordinary readers just don't care. Maybe.

The first thing to know is that nobody seems to have been able to pin down this particular piece of Camabrigde research (or researchch?). Where did it come from? But forgetting about the credentials, is it true?

To find out, we read a commentary on it by Matt Davis, a genuine researcher who specialises in the psychology of language (including reading). If you're interested you'll love it: www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.ukpersonalmatt.davisCmabrigde (that's right - Cmabrigde.)

The verdict is that the passage is a cheat, but contains a grain of truth.

It's a cheat because the letters aren't in fact as chaotic as they could be. For one thing, most of the short words remain unchanged simply because you need at least four letters before the order of the middle ones makes any difference. The happy consequence is that the grammar-bearing words like "to", "a" and "are" survive to guide us through the grammatical structure. That's really important for guessing the other words.

Second, none of the jumbled words have turned into a different word - there isn't a word "aoccdrnig", so the reordering doesn't mislead us as it would if we changed, say, "salt" into "slat".

And third, letters aren't very far from where they should be. Take "aoccdrnig" again. The only changes are simple reversals of pairs: cco

occ, rd

dr and in

ni. That's not much change. Here's how it might look if we really scrambled the letters in the middle: "arocnicdg". That's much harder to recognise. Why are anagrams so hard to solve if letter order doesn't matter?

The germ of truth is that a reader's mind is flexible enough to separate the identity of letters from their position, so we can cope with a lot of disruption. But there's a price - chiefly, speed and good will.

This spoof text really doesn't justify bad spelling. It does, however, conveniently remind us of the inherent fascination language has - even for thoes who mitgh not haev thoghut so.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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