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