October 23, 2003

Inveralent jumumble at the Guardian

A month after everyone else with an internet connection, Michael Johnson at the Guardian has noticed that an "ietm is going around ... citting new reserach from Cambirge Uvinersity" about the readability of scrambled words. Johnson hasn't spent the past month studying the subject in depth, since from the discussions by Language Hat and Uncle Jazzbeau (among others) he would have learned that this is a sort of Urban Legend, or perhaps a new kind of internet-mediated distributed amateur science. He would also have learned, as Matt Davis authoritatively explains, that "there's no-one in Cambridge UK who is currently doing research on this topic." Or at least there wasn't until the folks there started participating in the world-wide digital discussion.

In fact there is a story by John Crace in the education section of the Guardian on 10/21/2003 (the day before Johnson's commentary) that has the correct attribution -- the original research on this effect was apparently done by Graham Rawlinson in a 1976 PhD dissertation at Nottingham University. But on 10/22/2003, Johnson not only misses the attribution, he also gets the content wrong. If he'd poked around in the blogosphere a bit, or seen the previous day's piece before writing his own, Johnson would have learned enough not to write

"the eye deosn't need or evn want the whoole wrord. It noets the frist and last lettres, and fills in the rest by inrefence. You can even add or dorp lettres. The jumumble in btweeen is irrveralent."

He would have seen Matt Davis' example the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet, which the eye doesn't read "vrey fast and quite misteriollusly" as the manslaughter of a teenage cancer patient", or the extensive (and psycholinguistically interesting) commentary at Davis' site and elsewhere about why muddling middle letters sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

Instead, Johnson uses a half-understood version of the muddled-spelling business as a hook on which to hang a collection of linguistic observations: some harmless national stereotypes about "Eglinsh scools" vs. those in his native "Idniana"; the fact that "three is an accnet for evry neihbourhod in Lodnon, plus a few hunderd form upcuotnry"; some conventionally astonishing displays of ignorance from the "biusness execuvites" to whom he gives classes in "the use of the Eglinsh lagnuage"; and so on. All in all, the piece works well enough that it was sent to me by a friend from the English department, who probably wouldn't have noticed it if not for the muddled-spelling trick.

I know that it's churlish and pedantic to complain about an inadequately-researched joke, and in this case the truth would have made the joke harder to frame. Still, I feel that Johnson should have gotten his facts in order, especially because he complains about the decline in educational standards. His complaints are ironic, and thus ambiguous, but are irony and ambiguity an excuse for ignorance?

A lot of journalistic commentary is like this: a few scraps of false rumor, social stereotype and personal anecdote, eked out with enough conventional wisdom to fill the measure. In this "slleping" case at least, the informal network of weblogs and personal pages has had higher standards than the organs of conventional journalism, as well as faster reactions.

[Note: it occurs to me that Michael Johnson's piece may have been written in early September, and then languished for six weeks in some Guardian editor's inbox . If so, I owe Johnson an apology for suggesting that he missed the flurry of mid-September internet information, not to speak of the previous day's piece in the Guardian's education section; and Johnson owes a raspberry to the hypothetical Guardian editor in question.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 23, 2003 08:13 AM