Words & Stuff

VVV: Srmleacbd Wdors

(13 September 2003)

Aaron forwarded an email message containing a cool effect (I've corrected some typos and grammar problems in the original, though there are still some awkward phrases):

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

That looked really impressive to me at first; I read the whole thing almost at my usual reading speed, without any problems. But then (prompted by some further email discussion) I looked more carefully at exactly what's going on in that sample. The order of the letters in most of those words isn't very random; the order within small two- or three-letter chunks is sometimes scrabmled (that was a typo, but it seems appropriate), but there are also chunks that are left entirely alone. And there are a lot of short words; any word up to three letters long is unchanged, and four-letter words have only the middle two letters swapped, so anything under five letters long is easy to read even in this context.

Dave Mimno provides an automatic scrambling tool for performing this kind of scrambling in a more random way (I was in the process of writing such a tool, but Dave beat me to it and his is better than mine would've been anyway). After a pass through Dave's scrambler, the above sentences come out:

Arcndocig to rcereash at an Eisglnh uiteisvrny, it deson't mttear waht oderr the ltrtees in a wrod are in; the olny irapnomtt tinhg is taht the fsirt and lsat lteerts be in the rhigt pacle. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can siltl raed it wouitht a pbelorm. Tihs is bsuceae we do not raed ervey ltteer by iletsf, but rethar the wrod as a wolhe.

That's a lot harder for me to read, even knowing what it says. As a test of what it's like if you don't know what it says already, how about this, from Machiavelli:

Trhee is nhitnog mroe dfcifulit to tkae in hnad, mroe poerulis to cdcunot, or mroe ucatinren in its scusces, tahn to tkae the laed in the iordcuoitntn of a new oerdr of tngihs.

Not impossible, but harder, I think, than the original setup made it sound. Especially when there are unfamiliar or unexpected words thrown into the middle. (And note that there are words that are indistinguishable from each other when scrambled this way—anagrams that start and end with the same letters, such as there and three.)

Another example, from Wallace Stevens's Connoisseur of Chaos (1942):

A. A vonilet oerdr is derdisor; and

B. A garet dresdoir is an oderr. Tshee

Two tgnhis are one.

And this, from Coleridge's Table Talk (1827):

I wsih our celevr ynoug petos wulod rbeememr my hleomy dfteioinnis of psroe and ptorey; taht is, psroe = wdors in teihr bset oderr; ptreoy = the bset wdors in tiher bset oderr.

He didn't say anything about best letters in the best order, though.

This whole thing makes me wonder about rearranging the sounds in words, leaving the first and last phonemes in place. I suspect that would be harder to figure out—especially since phonemes aren't discrete, unlike letters, so it would probably sound even more garbled than the scrambled words look.

I a rearranging words also in wonder about the sentence. I suspect the higher-level rearrangement is also harder to read. Regardless of whether the original claim is strictly accurate, I do find it interesting that much of the time it's possible to glance at a semi-scrambled word and be able to tell what it says, both from context (which can provide a lot of clues) and from the set of letters in the word. I wonder if people who learned words by looking at their shapes find it easier or harder to do this than people who learned to sound out words.

I gather that people who have dyslexia find things like reversed and swapped letters easier to read than people who don't; I wonder if that's also true of the more extensive scrambling shown above.

The ability to unscramble words on the fly comes up most often with typos. A friend of mine used to frequently type teh and porblem, but it was always obvious what she meant. I think she was the one who once asked whether various people thought potery was more likely to be a typo for poetry or for pottery. A good question; I'm inclined to say the former, but that may be simply because I don't see people writing about pottery so often. But I also think that reversing the order of two letters is a more common form of typo than dropping a letter.

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>