Mental Health

Letter 'G' Confusion: Some People Unable To Recall Lowercase, Study Says

Most people who are literate in English are exposed to two versions of the letter 'G' in lowercase: the single-story "opentail g" (which is usually handwritten) and the double-story "looptail g" (which is the typeset version we tend to see in print).

Cognitive researchers from Johns Hopkins University have now suggested that some of us may be unaware of the looptail g despite its widespread use in books, emails, newspapers, novels etc. The new study was published 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," said Johns Hopkins cognitive scientist Michael McCloskey, who was the senior author of the study. "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, so we may not learn its shape as well."

To test people's awareness, a set of three experiments were conducted. In the first task, the researchers wanted to know if people were aware there were two versions of the letter. Out of 38 participants, only two people could identify "g" as having two lowercase varieties in print.

Kimberly Wong, an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins and first author of the study, revealed that many of the participants expressed confusion and denial when informed there were two forms of the letter.

"Once you really nudged them on, insisting there are two types of g, some would still insist there is no second g," she said.

For the second experiment, 16 new participants had to silently read a paragraph containing 14 looptail gs, but were asked to say each word with a "g" out loud. Researchers immediately asked them to write down the "g" they had just seen 14 times. Half the participants wrote the incorrect opentail version while others attempted and failed at writing the looptail version. Only one participant could complete the task successfully.

In the last experiment, 25 participants were asked to choose the correct looptail g in a multiple-choice test with four options. Only 7 people succeeded.

While the study was limited by the small number of participants, the findings do shed light on the possible impact of our continued shift from writing to typing. While we can visually identify letters, do we slowly cease to remember the lines and strokes it takes to construct it by hand? Questions also emerged regarding the implications of electronic devices for children who are just learning to read.

"That's something we don't really know," McCloskey says. "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."