Can you choose a lowercase G from an alignment? Researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered that a surprising number of adults can not. In fact, many of the adults who examined did not know that there are two versions of a lowercase G and do not know how to draw the least common.
The study, published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, was small. But before you get into that, just take a look and test yourself:
Image: Johns Hopkins University
To be clear, there are two lowercase G's. There is almost everyone writing by hand, which is a circle with a tail pointing to the left. It's like the G in the Arial font, and the researchers call it "opentail." The other, called "looptail", is of the type seen in a font such as Times New Roman: two circles, connected by a line on the left side. (Then, the correct answer for the previous test is 3.)
The Johns Hopkins study had three parts. First, the researchers asked 38 adults to list the letters that have two lowercase versions. Of the 38 participants, only two people listed the letter G. Next, 16 new volunteers quietly read a paragraph that had 14 of those complicated loop Gs. They had to say each word with a "G" out loud, then write the G they had just seen on a sheet of paper. Half of them wrote the opentail type, although the words had a G loop, and those who tried to write the correct version failed. Only one person could do it. In the last part, 25 participants took the previous multiple choice test, where they were asked to select the correct lowercase G of the alignment. Only seven people chose the correct answer.
So why does this matter, besides being vaguely embarrassing? When we read, no one has trouble recognizing the letter G no matter how it is written. It's not like we see something in Times New Roman and suddenly we lose the ability to understand the word. But the study shows that we really do not know what the letter G is like, and it may be because we are writing less by hand since we use more electronic devices, the authors write. They wonder if taking a pen less has had implications on how we pay attention to the letters and learn to read.
A similar phenomenon has been observed in China, where written language is composed of complex characters. There, people can develop character amnesia because they are so used to writing on the computer. If you enter the romanized spelling for "hao" (Chinese for "good"), the computer will show you some different character options and you can choose the correct one ("好"). As a result, people can still recognize the character, but they no longer know the exact strokes, especially if the character is more complicated.
It is nothing new that we do not pay much attention to the things we see every day. We recognize cents, for example, but some of us do not know which side Lincoln is on (on the right). But researchers are now trying to understand how the change to electronic devices is affecting our memory and our literacy. In the meantime, consider this as a reminder that we do not look at things as closely as we think.