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Sci-Tech

You probably can't write this common form of the letter 'g'

Surprise! You see two different forms of the lowercase print letter "g" all the time, but there's a good chance one of them plays tricks on you.

Grab a piece of paper. Writer the lowercase letter "g" in your best print handwriting. You probably created something that looks like a circle with a curved tail hanging down. Now what if I told you there's a different form of that letter? You probably can't figure out how to write it, and you may even deny its very existence.

In a new study that points to the key role writing plays in learning letters, researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered most people have a blind spot when it comes to a very common form of "g." This one looks like two loops stacked vertically, connected by a small curved line on the left and with a little line extending off the top to the right like the bill of a cap. 

The researchers call the "g" you most likely write an "opentail g" and the more mysterious print form a "looptail g." You'll see the looptail all over the place, including the Times New Roman font. Yet most people can't recognize it or write it accurately. 

While the news of a second form of "g" we see all the time but can't actually write out may seem like a fun, minorly mind-blowing phenomenon, it raises some intriguing questions about how writing and reading connect. Most of us learn to write a "g" in one particular way, which seems to make us almost immune to remembering a very different-looking style of "g," despite seeing it every day.

"Here is a naturally occurring situation where, unlike most letters, this is a letter we don't write," says Johns Hopkins cognitive scientist Michael McCloskey, "We could ask whether children have some reading disadvantage with this form of g."  

Johns Hopkins even created a video that challenges you to point out a proper looptail.

The research team published its findings this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance with the fabulous title "The Devil's in the g-tails: Deficient letter-shape knowledge and awareness despite massive visual experience."  

The researchers talked to 38 adults and asked them to list letters with two lowercase print varieties. Only two listed "g" and only one could write it out properly.  "Once you really nudged them on, insisting there are two types of g, some would still insist there is no second g," says the study's lead author Kimberly Wong.

The researchers also asked 16 different participants to read a paragraph full of looptail gs, but to say each "g" word out loud. They were then asked to write out the g they just saw. Half wrote an opentail g while the others attempted a looptail. Only one actually wrote a proper looptail.

The final phase of the study challenged 25 participants to recognize a proper looptail in a multiple-choice test. These people fared slightly better, with 7 getting the answer right. 

Of course, all this intrigue around the two forms of the letter "g" may become an increasingly moot point, because who even writes by hand these days?

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