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Communication, Language, Science

It Doesn’t Seem To Make Sense that We Can Read This, But Science Explains Why

Written by Nick Darlington
Nick is a Multipotentialite, an entrepreneur, a blogger and a traveler.
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Tihs artlice amis to porvdie cliarty reagdring why it is poslisbe taht we are albe to raed wrods, eevn wehn the letrtes are julbmed.

Re-worded: This article aims to provide clarity regarding why it is possible that we are able to read words, even when the letters are jumbled.

I am sure that you have stumbled across the above meme (or at least variations thereof), possibly with a tagline mentioning that not everyone can read this, and if you can, you have a strong mind.

Have you ever stopped to wonder, though:

1. What are the origins of this meme?
2. Are people unable to read them?
3. Why are we able to read them even?
4. What is the actual science behind this?

An article written in the MRC, Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit delved deeper into this.

Origins of the meme with jumbled letters

Below is what is considered to be the first jumbled letters meme:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Re-worded: According to research at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole.

This meme started circulating towards the end of 2003. It needs to be recognised that such a body of research was not undertaken by Cambridge University.  At the time, the origins of its source were unknown. However, it now seems that the origins of the meme can be credited to Graham Rawlinson of Nottingham University. Rawlinson wrote a paper on “The Significance of Letter Position in word recognition”. In it he wrote a letter:


“This reminds me of my PhD at Nottingham University (1976), which showed that randomising letters in the middle of words had little or no effect on the ability of skilled readers to understand the text. Indeed one rapid reader noticed only four or five errors in an A4 page of muddled text. “

Can some people actually not read these memes?

I hate to burst your bubble, but I think it is fair to say that the majority of people are able to read these memes. I have yet to encounter someone who is unable to read them.

What is the science behind this?

As the  original meme suggests, we read words in their entirety, not focusing on the individual letters. The order of the letter doesn’t matter, the only important thing is that the first and last letters are unchanged. But is this entirely true?

Consider these three sentences mentioned in the MRC article:

Sentence 1

  • A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont near the UN haduqertares in Bagahdd on Mnoday kilinlg the bmober and an Irqai polcie offceir.
  • Reworded: A vehicle exploded at a police checkpoint near the UN headquarters in Baghdad on Monday killing the bomber and an Iraqi police officer.

Sentence 2

  • Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs.
  • Reworded: Big council tax increases this year have squeezed the incomes of many pensioners

Sentence 3

  • A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur
  • Reworded: A doctor has admitted the manslaughter of a teenage cancer patient who died after a hospital drug blunder.

I am sure that you found these sentences increasingly hard to read. The first and last letters (although a factor) are not the only thing you use when reading the text.  So to answer the question. No, it is not entirely true.


There are other factors to consider. This becomes increasingly evident with more complex words and sentence structures. For example, when the re-ordering of letters creates the possibility for multiple words.

But, yes for straightforward sentences the first and last letter rule applies. This holds true for sentences where words are short, function words are used (be, the etc), jumbling of adjacent letters occur (exterior letters are easier to detect than middle letters), re-ordering of letters does not create another word and predictable text is used (you can guess what words are coming next).


Most of us are able to read those memes of jumbling words on the internet. In these instances the sentences are straightforward. Consequently, the first and last letter rule apply. However, this is not true for more complex sentences where the re-ordering of letters allows for multiple words to be created.

If you want to have some fun with this, why not visit the Jumbler?

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