5 October 2003

Scrambled words can be hard to read

An email has been doing the rounds, claiming that 'Aoccdrnig to rsceearh at an elingsh 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 is in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit graet porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.'

Not so, says Martin Turner of the Dyslexia Institute. 'There is a spectrum of truth here, and that is towards the lower end, because actually sequence is about the only thing that is important.'

Experiments with so-called format distortion can change the appearance of a word drastically - alternating letters in capitals, lower case, superscript and subscript, for instance, or in a huge Gothic typeface to disguise the lettering - but in experiments young children can still read such disguised words, says Turner. What throws them is a change in the sequence of letters, hardly surprising because letters represent a flow of speech sound. The first letter is an important clue to a scrambled word, the last much less so.

In fact, the exact way in which the letters are scrambled can be extremely significant. For example, with plurals, leaving the 's' at the end, but not the letter that should have preceded it, can make the word hard to decipher.

'All you need to do is try and read that email,' says Turner. 'Immediately, you discover it is quite difficult to read. And secondly, you get very fed up with it after two or three sentences. What you have done is put yourself in the position of a dyslexic or poor reader, who loses interest jolly quickly.

All this is obviously an evil plot by Tim to spread weirdnesses of mass decipherment among the populace for his own nefarious purposes.

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