Play Video

Can you write the most common lowercase ‘G’?

(Credit: Getty Images)

Despite seeing it millions of times in pretty much every picture book, novel, newspaper, and email message, people are essentially unaware of the more common version of the lowercase print letter “g,” researchers have found.

“They don’t entirely know what this letter looks like, even though they can read it…”

Most people don’t even recall that two forms of the letter—one usually handwritten, the other typeset—exist. And if they do, they can’t handwrite the typeset one we usually see. They can’t even pick the correct version of it out of a lineup.

The findings suggest the importance that writing letters plays in learning them.

“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,” says Michael McCloskey, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “But our results suggest that’s not always the case.

Can you pick the right “g” out of a line up? Try it for yourself:

“What we think may be happening here,” says McCloskey, senior author of the study, “is that we learn the shapes of most letters in part because we have to write them in school. ‘Loop-tail g’ is something we’re never taught to write, so we may not learn its shape as well.”

Unlike most letters, “g” has two lowercase print versions. There’s the open-tail option that most everyone uses when writing by hand; it looks like a loop with a fishhook hanging from it. Then there is the loop-tail g, which is far more common, seen in everyday fonts like Times New Roman and Calibri and, hence, in most printed and typed material.

To test people’s awareness of the g they tend to write and the g they tend to read, the researchers conducted a three-part experiment:

First, they wanted to figure out if people even knew there were two lowercase print gs. They asked 38 adults to list letters with two lowercase print varieties. Just two named g. And only one could write both forms correctly.

“We would say: ‘There’re two forms of g. Can you write them?’ And people would look at us and just stare for a moment, because they had no idea,” says first author Kimberly Wong, a junior at Johns Hopkins. “Once you really nudged them on, insisting there are two types of g, some would still insist there is no second g.”

Next, the researchers asked 16 new participants to read silently a paragraph filled with loop-tail gs, but to say each word with a “g” aloud. Immediately after participants finished, having paid particular attention to each of 14 gs, they tried to write the “g” they had just seen 14 times. Half wrote the wrong type, the open-tail. The others attempted to write a loop-tail version, but only one could.

Finally, the team asked 25 participants to identify the correct loop-tail g in a multiple-choice test with four options. Only seven succeeded.

“They don’t entirely know what this letter looks like, even though they can read it,” says coauthor Gali Ellenblum, a graduate student in cognitive science. “This is not true of letters in general. What’s going on here?”

Brain ‘reads’ sentence same way in 2 languages

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.

“That’s something we don’t really know. Our findings give us an intriguing way of looking at questions about the importance of writing for reading. Here is a naturally occurring situation where, unlike most letters, this is a letter we don’t write. We could ask whether children have some reading disadvantage with this form of g.”

The research appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance.

Source: Johns Hopkins University