What We Don’t Read When We ReadPrint
On the words and letters we miss
By Jessica Love
February 6, 2014
To read is to skip words.
As our gaze lurches across a sentence in quick, uneven leaps, we land on about two words out of three. Sometimes we miss the third word by mistake, our eyes having botched their jump, sticking us a syllable shy of our intended destination, or a few letters too ambitious. (The primo landing spot on a word in English, if you’re wondering, is just left of center.)
But generally we skip words because we can get away with skipping them. It should come as no surprise, then, that the words we skip are often predictable from context. Without his house key, Peter couldn’t open the ___________. Applesauce? Handcuffs? I wouldn’t bother either.
Length is also a factor: three-letter words are skipped twice as often as they aren’t. Words between seven and eight letters long get bypassed just 20 percent of the time. Very common words are also likely to be passed over, even when they aren’t predictable in the least. One study finds that even when the word the doesn’t make sense in a particular context—on its first mention in She was sure she would the all the tests, for instance—readers nonetheless skip it more often than a perfectly appropriate word like ace. This means that by the time our eyes have plotted their next tandem leap, we’ve seen enough, in the fuzzy realms of our not-quite-peripheral vision, to determine yea or nay: Does that upcoming letter string deserve a better look? T-h-e followed by a space—how convenient, those spaces!—earns a nay.
But even when we don’t skip over these brief, frequent, predictable words—even when we physically can’t because we’re using an online app like spreeder that flashes them at us like a sprinkler spewing Helvetica—we still don’t see them the way we see other words. Try to count up all of the t’s and a’s on this page, or any another. Chances are you’ll miss a higher proportion of the letters contained in function words (articles, pronouns, conjunctions) than in content words (nouns, adjectives, adverbs). This phenomenon, known as the “missing letter effect,” has been found again and again—and the better you read, the larger your missing letter effect will be.
Why? Learning to read is in essence learning to assign meaning to lumps of letters, so scanning for individual ones never comes naturally. But with function words, the difficulty is compounded. That’s because function words are recognized so darn fast that we simply don’t process their letters as long, according to one account. Another has it that because function words serve a structural purpose, acting as the bones of our language, we’re not used to paying attention to them the way we do the content words they highlight and arrange.
Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.