Is Ungrammatical Text Really Harder to Read?

I’m in the middle of Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. He talks about experiments in which subjects are shown letters in random orientations, and have to figure out whether the letters are mirror-flipped or not. What was found was that people have to mentally rotate the letters they see, so that they’re right-side-up, at which point they can tell whether the letters are mirror-reversed or not. This rotation takes time.

I wonder if similar work has been done with respect to words and text. It seems that when I’m reading text with a lot of typos, or 1337-speak, or poor punctuation, or inappropriate homonyms (e.g., “who’s” when it should say “whose”), it takes me longer to read than to read text with proper sentence structure, punctuation, and spelling. I wonder whether this is just an illusion, or whether it actually takes more mental work to read the text as written and translate it into proper English.

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10 Responses to Is Ungrammatical Text Really Harder to Read?

  1. Raven says:

    I haven’t noticed such a delay when reading ungrammatical text, but I definitely have measurable lag when reading l33tspeak. It should be easily testable, though. (Also, the auto-preview on your page noticeably slows my typing, as I’m reading twice while I’m writing. Motion draws the eye, too, so it’s up and down and up and down between the two places where text is appearing.)

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  2. Eamon Knight says:

    …..or whether it actually takes more mental work to read the text as written and translate it into proper English.

    ….and if so, does it depend on whether the reader has a good knowledge of proper English? Presumably the people who write badly (typos aside) do so because they don’t know better. What do they experience when reading their own prose?

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  3. arensb says:

    Raven:

    I haven’t noticed such a delay when reading ungrammatical text, but I definitely have measurable lag when reading l33tspeak.

    I suspect that there are two different mechanisms at work: things like recognizing “3” as “E” and “|3” as “B” involve shape recognition. That is, the problem is roughly the same as reading someone’s bad handwriting, or a badly degraded manuscript.

    But what I (seem to) notice when I read something like “you should watch what your doing” is that I get to the “your” and expect it to be followed by a noun (e.g., “watch what your fingers are doing”). When I see “doing”, it’s as if I have to rewind the parser, correct “your” to “you are”, and restart. I think different circuits are involved.

    I see a PubMed search in my future🙂

    Also, the auto-preview on your page noticeably slows my typing, as I’m reading twice while I’m writing. Motion draws the eye, too, so it’s up and down and up and down between the two places where text is appearing.

    Yeah, sorry about that. I know it has some problems, but it’s better than no preview at all, and this is the best preview plugin I could find.

    One workaround is to install the It’s All Text extension for Firefox, then use $EDITOR (coughEmacscough) to edit the comment. Or just compose the comment in $EDITOR and paste it in one chunk.

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  4. arensb says:

    Eamon Knight:

    ….and if so, does it depend on whether the reader has a good knowledge of proper English? Presumably the people who write badly (typos aside) do so because they don’t know better. What do they experience when reading their own prose?

    Good question. See my “your/you’re” example, above. When I read the words “your” and “you’re”, it’s as if they sound different in my mind (even though I can’t for the life of me find a significant audible difference). Perhaps I read differently from other people.

    I also wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that I learned French when I was a child. French words are spelled with a lot of silent letters. And spoken French appears to have less “phonemic diversity”, if I may coin a $5 phrase, meaning that it seems to use fewer sounds than English, the upshot being that it’s a lot easier to construct puns in French than in English. I’m pretty sure I’ve run across sentences that, when spoken, can be understood in two quite different ways, but are unambiguous when written. So perhaps having to deal with that sort of thing in French has spilled over into my English processing.

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  5. Eamon Knight says:

    I also wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that I learned French when I was a child.

    FWIW, it’s not just the language shift: I’m a native English speaker, and French only later (and I suck, despite the fact that I’ve lived next door to Quebec for most of my adult life), but I also experience a certain dissonance on encountering your/you’re, to/too/two, there/their/they’re and similar errors (though my fingers still commit them on occasion — a fact which itself points to something interesting about the way we retrieve words while typing).

    And just for the hell of it, the only French riddle I know (and which works when written OR spoken).
    “Je suis que je suis, mais je ne suis pas que je suis”. Who am I?

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  6. arensb says:

    I also experience a certain dissonance on encountering your/you’re, to/too/two, there/their/they’re and similar errors (though my fingers still commit them on occasion — a fact which itself points to something interesting about the way we retrieve words while typing).

    Most assuredly. As does, I suspect, my inability to appreciate poetry: I can either hear the music of the words, or their meaning, but not both. Unless it’s set to music, oddly enough.

    “Je suis que je suis, mais je ne suis pas que je suis”. Who am I?

    Une ombre (a shadow)?

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  7. Eamon Knight says:

    Une ombre (a shadow)?

    No: a garbage man — “I am what I am, but I am not what I follow”. Exploits the ambiguity of “etre” vs. “suivre”.

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  8. arensb says:

    Okay, I was thinking “detective” as an alternate guess, but yeah, I’d gotten the main part, the bit about ambiguity between “être” and “suivre”.

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  9. Cyde Weys says:

    I find that it takes me more time to read improper text. That’s why I’m so pissed when I see people writing on the Internet with crappy grammar, or even worse, IM speak. With the little fractional bit of time they’re saving versus using proper English, they’re wasting time for each reader who reads the crap. If there are just ten readers, then the person who didn’t write correctly is effectively sapping total time from humanity.

    There’s a reason why all of the popular blogs use proper English.

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  10. arensb says:

    I find that it takes me more time to read improper text.

    I’d still like to find some solid research, though. I haven’t seen any yet.

    There’s a reason why all of the popular blogs use proper English.

    With the notable exception of I Can Has Cheezburger?, but I’m sure that doesn’t count.

    (Or maybe it explains the dearth of research: funding agencies tend to turn down grant applications that say “I can has moneez plz? kthx.”)

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