Cognitive Science

Thrown for a loop(tail)

A letter of the alphabet we can read but not write? It's a 'g' thing

Video: Len Turner and Dave Schmelick

Despite seeing it in nearly every book, newspaper, and email message, people are essentially unaware of the more common version of the lowercase print letter g, Johns Hopkins researchers have found. Most people don't even know that two forms of the letter—the open-tail one usually handwritten and the looptail one seen in typed materials—exist. And if they do, they can't write the typeset one we typically see. They can't even pick it out from a lineup.

Video: LEN TURNER AND DAVE SCHMELICK

The findings, which suggest the important role writing plays in learning letters, appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance. "We think that if we look at something enough, especially if we have to pay attention to its shape as we do during reading, then we would know what it looks like. But our results suggest that's not always the case," says Johns Hopkins cognitive scientist Michael McCloskey, the study's senior author. "What we think may be happening here is that we learn the shapes of most letters in part because we have to write them in school. Looptail g is something we're never taught to write."

To test people's awareness of the looptail g, the researchers conducted a three-part experiment. First, they asked 38 adults to list lowercase letters with two print variations. Just two named g, and only one could write both forms correctly. Next, the researchers asked 16 new participants to silently read a paragraph filled with looptail g's but to say aloud each word with a g. Immediately after participants finished, having paid particular attention to each of 14 g's, they were asked to write the g that they just saw 14 times. Half of them wrote the wrong type. The others attempted to write a looptail version, but only one could. Finally, the team asked 25 participants to identify the correct looptail g in a multiple-choice test with four options. Just seven succeeded.

This outlier g seems to demonstrate that our knowledge of letters can suffer when we don't write them. And as we write less and become more dependent on electronic devices, the researchers wonder about the implications for reading. "What about children who are just learning to read? Do they have a little bit more trouble with this form of g because they haven't been forced to pay attention to it and write it?" McCloskey says. "Our findings give us an intriguing way of looking at questions about the importance of writing for reading."