Don’t be so sure you know what a lowercase G looks like

By Angela Chen

Image: Johns Hopkins University

Can you pick out a lowercase G from a lineup? Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that a surprising number of adults can’t. In fact, many of the adults they tested weren’t aware that there are two versions of a lowercase G at all and don’t know how to draw the less common one.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, was small. But before we get into that, just take a look and test yourself. (Just pick one.)

Image: Johns Hopkins University

To be clear, there are two lowercase Gs. There’s the one that almost everyone writes by hand, which is a circle with a tail that points left. It’s like the G in the Arial font, and the researchers call this one “opentail.”

The other one, called “looptail,” is the kind you see in a font like Times New Roman: two circles, connected by a line on the left side. (So, the correct answer for the above test is 3.)

The Johns Hopkins study had three parts. First, the researchers asked 38 adults to list letters that have two lowercase versions. Of the 38 participants, only two people listed the letter G. Next, 16 new volunteers silently read a paragraph that had 14 of those tricky looptail Gs. They had to say each word with a “G” aloud, then write the G they just saw on a piece of paper. Half of them wrote the opentail type, even though the words had a looptail G, and those who tried to write the correct version failed. Only one person could do it. In the last part, 25 participants took the multiple-choice test above, where they were asked to pick the right lowercase G from the lineup. Only seven people picked the correct answer.

So why does this matter, besides being vaguely embarrassing? When we read, nobody has trouble recognizing the letter G no matter how it’s written. It’s not like we see something in Times New Roman and suddenly lose the ability to understand the word. But the study shows we don’t really know what the letter G looks like, and it may be because we’re writing by hand less as we use electronic devices more, the authors write. They wonder if picking up a pen less has had implications on how we pay attention to letters and learn how to read.

A similar phenomenon has been observed in China, where the written language consists of complex characters. There, people can develop character amnesia because they’re so used to typing on the computer. If you input the romanized spelling for “hao” (Chinese for “good”), the computer will show you a few different character options and you can pick the correct one (“好”). As a result, people can still recognize the character, but they don’t know the exact strokes anymore, especially if the character is more complicated.

It’s nothing new that we don’t pay super close attention to things we see every day. We recognize pennies, for example, but some of us don’t know off the top of our heads which side Lincoln faces (the right). But researchers are now trying to understand how switching to electronic devices is affecting our memory and our literacy. In the meantime, consider this a reminder that we don’t look at things as closely as we think.