Communication

This Is the Letter We've All Seen a Million Times, But Can't Write or Identify

How well do you know the alphabet? Pretty well, yeah? Well, what if we told you that there's a letter you've seen in print probably millions of times but would not be able to write or identify? Not to put you on the spot here, but take this short little test in the video below to see if you can point out which version of this super common letter is correct. Nope, no tricks here, we promise.

Play this Game! The Elusive Letter G

Gee Whiz

Weirdly difficult, isn't it? Though the lowercase letter "G" is super common in the print we read every day on our phones, computers, billboards, road signs, menus, and everywhere else, it's oddly hard to point out in a lineup. And that's the story for everyone, not just you. For an April 2018 study from Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that most people are unaware of the most common print form of "g" — called the looptail — and can't pick it out from a spread of similar variations. Most people aren't even aware that there are two versions of the printed lowercase "g." "We would say, there are two forms of g, can you write them," said first author Kimberly Wong, a junior at Johns Hopkins, in a press release. "And people would look at us and just stare for a moment because they had no idea. Once you really nudged them on, insisting there are two types of g, some would still insist there is no second g."

To test their "g" knowledge, the team asked 38 adult participants to list letters with two lowercase print varieties. Of the 38 people, only two named "g," and only one could actually write it correctly. With a group of 16 new participants, the researchers asked them to read a paragraph silently, but read aloud the words that include the letter "g." Then, they asked participants to write the "g" that they just indicated 14 times in the paragraph. Half of them wrote the "g" the way we all learn it in first grade. The other half attempted the ol' looptail, but only one person actually nailed it. In the final test, researchers showed 25 participants four versions of the looptail "g" and asked them to pick out the correct one. Only seven could do it.

Do You Read Me?

If we've seen the looptail "g" so many times throughout our lives, how do we not even know what it looks like? It may be due to how we learn to write letters early on.

"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 senior study author Michael McCloskey, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins. "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."

The results of this study point to the idea that our ability to read is closely tied to our ability to write. As kids grow up closer to electronic devices than to pencils and paper, the researchers wonder about the implications for learning to read.

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Where the heck did this "g" come from, anyway? You can delve into the history of every letter with "Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z" by David Sacks. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto April 12, 2018

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