Why We "Hear" Words on the Page

Science explains why readers perceive cadence

Posted Nov 01, 2016

If you ask a reader to read two articles, one from, say, the New York Times and another from the Bad Axe Daily Tribune, most readers will easily identify the New York Times article. The difference readers perceive stems partly from the Times’ editorial board envisioning its average reader as having an undergraduate degree and some graduate education, in contrast to the fifth-grade education editors assume for most newspapers. As an earlier study I published reveals, sophistication in writing has some correlations with the length of sentences and clauses in sentences. In addition, the same study found sources like the New York Times featured words that appear less commonly than they do in sources like BuzzFeed, reddit, or daily newspapers. However, readers also pick up on something far more subtle than either sentence length or unusual word choice. We also perceive the rhythm or cadence of sentences—despite our mostly reading silently.

Cadence tells us whether writers are fully in command of the way their sentences and paragraphs unfurl. In 1512, Erasmus provided early advice on the rhythm of sentences, advising writers to both imitate lyrical prose and to phrase their sentences, using as many variations as possible to yield a pleasing rhythm. By 1926, in the redoubtable Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler counseled writers that they could only gain a sense of their writings’ cadence by “reading with the eye and not the mouth…but being as fully aware of the unuttered sound as of the sense [of sentences].”

But we forget that silent reading is a comparatively recent development. St. Augustine first glimpsed silent reading in AD 383, and silent reading in the West did not become commonplace until well into the tenth century. However, we most likely “hear” words on a page for reasons that have their roots in both psychology and neurology. For instance, when we encounter novel words, we often resort to our earliest encounters with reading, translating the graphemes, or marks on the page, on the page into phonemes or sounds. In 1993, one study used PET scans to measure cerebral blood flow during silent reading. During the study trials, participants merely read silently and never uttered a word. Researchers expected to see increased blood flow in the lingual gyrus, an area associated with some visual processing of letters. However, study researchers were floored to find blood flow also increased to Broca’s area, a part of the brain previously believed to be responsible only for understanding and forming spoken words.

In my next blog post, I’ll explore the other parts of the brain that subconsciously tell readers whether they’re in the hands of a master prose stylist or a writer who has failed to develop beyond the strictly transactional prose of the “My dog, Spike” essays produced by fifth graders—or, more likely, merely writers so pressed for time and to communicate data that they’re grateful if their writing is merely comprehensible. Nevertheless, in all forms, a masterly handling of cadence communicates to every kind of audience whether they are in the hands (or reading the words) of an amateur or a particularly fluent, masterful writer. In my next few posts, I’ll also explore how any writer can master the subtleties of cadence, which I explore thoroughly in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer (Cambridge University Press, 2015).