Monday, April 26, 2010

Misreading texts

A while ago I walked down the sidewalk on a brilliant, clear day, my coffee in hand.  I’m rested, happy and generally enjoying life. 

At the long newspapers rack I looked down the line, and at one stand I saw  a headline blurb about the upcoming “Princess & The Frog” Disney movie.  I read the caption:  “Princess is no royal film treat” 

WHAT??  It’s NOT a treat?  I’m supposed to take my daughter to see it tomorrow.  ZOMG. Really?  That SO contradicts what I’ve heard about the movie that I do a doubletake. 
Re-reading, more carefully this time I see:  “Princess is a royal film treat.”  Now I’m really confused.  How could I have possibly misread that so badly?  And, if I hadn’t gone back to re-read something that contradicted what I *thought* I knew… 

Here’s the whole headline, more-or-less the way I saw it that morning: 

Clearly, as I walked down the walkway, I scanned the “no” from the subheadline and somehow inserted it into my reading of the headline.  It was a simple misread, somehow caused by a subtle blip in the way my eyes flitted over the text. 

This brought up a question that I do not know the answer to:  “How often do such misreads occur in everyday life… and how often are they corrected by the detection of contradictions and careful re-reading?”  I read the text and noticed the contradiction with what I thought was true, so I stopped and carefully re-read this snippet of text. 

Or, to be blunt about it, how often have you misread something, then NOT noticed the contradiction and just incorporated that bit of knowledge into your world-view? 

To extend this even farther, how often do any of us mis-HEAR something and get a bogus interpretation?  Unlike written-out texts, you can’t just backup time and re-hear the spoken phrase.  This is what leads to the creation of modegreens—misheard lyrics that become well-known, as in the case of “ ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”  (from a lyric in the song "Purple Haze", by Jimi Hendrix which is actually "' ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.")

Perhaps this is just our normal condition—misreading, mishearing, misunderstanding—as we went our way through life.  A big part of the trick is to pick up the missed-interpretations as quickly as possible so the mis-information doesn’t stick in your mind and become part of your assumptions about the world. 

As Steven Pinker says, “You'll be amazed at the number of things you remember that never happened, at the number of facts you were certain of that are plainly false. Everyday conversation, even among educated people, is largely grounded in urban legends and misremembered half-truths. It makes you wonder about the soundness of conventional wisdom and democratic decision-making — and whether the increasing availability of fact-checking on demand might improve them. “    (

When I read that, I thought he was, in Pinkerian style, exaggerating the case in order to make a point.  Now, I’m not so sure. 

For the past month, ever since I noticed that first misreading of the newspaper headline, I’ve been keeping track of how often I notice myself re-scanning a text because something seemed inconsistent or just plain wrong.  Much to my surprise, it seems to happen more-or-less constantly, on the average of  2 – 4 times / day! 

I don’t think I’m especially sloppy in my scanning, so this makes me wonder—is this really a common condition? 

I did a little searching (because that’s what I do…), trying to find out Here are a couple of pull quotes that are suggestive:

“Misreading is normal and expected; it can be checked and corrected. Even good readers are likely to make quite conspicuous misreadings, but they will not self—correct unless the misreading makes a difference to meaning. This is the way fluent readers read.”  ( Smith , 1978:34)

According to Traugott & Pratt (1990:341) “readers often tend to read carelessly and stereotypically, that is, they often notice only a few features of the language they read without paying attention to what particular variety has been chosen , or to how it is represented.”  
So my hunch seems right.  People misread all the time.  The question is, how often, and how bad does it get?

I have two immediate responses: 

My first reaction is to be an engineer about it:  How can we set up texts so that misreads happen less often?  Is there some way to write the text, lay it out or otherwise present it in a way to minimize misreading?  For instance, some fonts seem to lend themselves to misreads.  Consider how some sans fonts lend no support for seeing the letters 1 l I  (esp. Gill Sans, shown here) as different letters (that is: the number 1, the miniscule L, and the majuscule I).  That’s an easy, small example.  What about line breaks that mislead, or paragraph lengths that intimidate?   

(As you’ve probably noticed by now, I tend to write with many small paragraphs rather than large, intimidating academic-seeming blocks of prose.  This is largely because I dislike reading deep into forbidding textual forests.  I find that smaller chunks seem to improve my reading and understanding.) 

So, what can one do set up the physical conditions for superior reading?  It’s going to be lots of typographic design, but design WRT scanning/readability, not necessarily grace-and-beauty (although I’d be surprised if those two goals were far apart). 

Or can I, as a writer, write in such a way as to encourage your close attention?  Perhaps one way to do this is by adding in unexpected ideas and attractors (sex & violence go here) into the middle of the text to encourage close examination. 

My second reaction is my teacherly response:  How can I teach people to read more carefully, or, barring that, to read in a way that reduces the effect of misreading? 

Teachers teach many skills—but I don’t know how often the skill of *careful* reading is taught.   In particular, I don’t recall any teacher trying to point out that as you read you need to constantly be on the lookout for things that don’t line up, contradictions and misalignments.  (Maybe I just missed that day.) 

My point remains.  Reading isn’t a simple act of visual ingestion, but a constant struggle for reconciliation between what you know, what you’ve already read, and whether or not it all makes sense together.  When it doesn’t, you have to go figure out why. 

In particular, that last comment rings especially true… You HAVE to go figure out why…  usually that just means backing up and re-reading a few words. 

We don’t just live with garden path sentences (“The old man the boat.”), but we actively reparse them until it makes sense.  In the same way, good readers look for fixes to inconsistencies within the text, or with respect to their world knowledge. 

And, as Groucho Marx said in a paraprosdokian, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." 

That’s funny because it causes you to re-interpret the first clause (“Outside of a dog..”) in a new way when you read the second sentence.  In effect, it’s a garden path paragraph that needs a re-interpretation going back one entire sentence. 

That’s what happens to good readers, or at least to me, this supposedly good reader.  I reparsed the conflicting evidence of the headline until I found the offense, my misscan of the page. 

Of course, I’m high on the “Need for Cognition” scale, so I pay attention to things like this.  I wonder how many people do…

Or, as a question for you:  Could you take note of how often you find yourself misreading a text during the next week and let me know?  (Details encouraged!)   I’m dying of curiosity to see how wide-spread this is. 

As an alternate question, and for extra credit, how would you design an experiment to get at this phenomenon?   Any ideas?

Traugott, Elizabeth Closs & Mary Louise Pratt (1990). Linguistics for Students of Literature. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Smith, Frank (1978). Reading. Cambridge UniversityPress

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