How Many Fs Riddle and Proofreading

How Many Fs Riddle and Proofreading - business english successThe riddle

There is a neat puzzle that has been doing the rounds for a while now, which asks a very simple question, namely

How many Fs do you see in the following sentence?

โ€œFinished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.โ€

Give it a go now and take note of your count. Don’t over-think it and don’t spend a lot of time on it.

Did you get an answer? Your answer is correct.

What?!? How can this be? Well, the question was “How many Fs do you see?” If you only saw two, then that is the correct answer.

Admittedly, that was a bit cheesy and pedantic, so let’s modify the question and make it a bit more robust by asking

How many Fs are there in the following sentence?

You probably answered three, yes? This is the answer most people give. Or more accurately, this is the answer most native speakers give.


The answer

There are actually six instances of the letter ‘f’ in that sentence – go back and check.

If you still only see three, then check out the three times the word ‘of’ appears, they have the letter ‘f’ as well. Maybe this representation is more helpful.

โ€œFinished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.โ€

Infuriating, isn’t it?


The standard (incorrect) assessment

Most of the places where you see this riddle then draw the simple conclusion that the more you see, the more intelligent you are. Wasn’t that a fun pattern-matching exercise.

This conclusion greatly misses the point of the exercise and, as we will see, has nothing to do with intelligence, but more to do with how we process language.


The linguistic assessment

There are two factors that will influence your answer.

Firstly, the question itself was a little bit mean, as it misdirects you into thinking that a letter ‘f’ has a hard sound, like ‘fail’, but not a soft sound like ‘of’ (where is sounds more like a ‘v’).

The first two words in the sentence (finished files) reinforce this incorrect subconscious thinking.

When we read the test sentence, because the word ‘of’ doesn’t sound like it has an ‘f’ in it, we don’t count it.

The other point is that when we process language, we don’t give the same importance to every word. The little words, such as ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘of’, ‘at’ etc. tend to get skipped and most of our attention is on the nouns and verbs. In other words, when we read the test sentence, we don’t really read the three instances of the word ‘of’ – we just blur past them.

These two points account for why native speakers tend to see three, instead of six.


Native speakers?

I’ve specifically mentioned native speakers more than once and there is a reason for this.

When you first learn a new language, all of the words are unfamiliar and all have equal importance. As you get more familiar with the language, you start to process the words in a more targeted way, for example, glossing over the small, familiar, words.

What this means is that if you give this test to someone who doesn’t speak English, they will most likely get the correct answer of six because, for them, it really is a pattern-matching exercise.

The astonishing conclusion is that the better you are at English, the more likely you are to get the wrong answer. This is not how tests are supposed to work.


Proofreading

This has implications for proofreading. When I’m proofreading my own text, I admit to having a blind spot. I know what the text is supposed to say and my brain does a great job of auto-correcting. I see what is supposed to be there, instead of what really is there. For other text, once I’ve read it a couple of times, the same effect occurs (to a lesser extent).

This is one of the reasons I like Grammarly. It reads your text for the first time, every time, and has no idea of your intent.

I hope you enjoyed this post.

Did you get the right answer? Do you have an alternative explanation?

I’d love to hear your comments.

10 Comments

  1. Haha, not fair. Yes, I counted 3. This is great and it comes at a perfect time. I am really focusing on improving my Spanish because I plan to retire from the military in the next 3 years and I want to travel South America teaching English. This seems like a great resource to help me in both fronts, thanks for the information!

  2. English has always been my favorite school subject, so I am in love with this blog, haha!

    A similar version of this riddle was first shown to me and my classmates during fifth grade English class (many years ago, haha) as the only question on our proof reading test.

    Although all of my classmates wrote their answer and handed in their test at the front of the class almost immediately, I was suspicious. I also had developed a strong affection for writing and proof reading. I sat at my desk, reading the sentence over, and over, and over before feeling confident that my initial answer was correct: three.

    During the twelfth time reading the sentence, I also spelled every single word “out loud” in my head; that’s what caused the light bulb to turn on. There were six Fs, not three!

    I was the only one in my class to pass that test. When I saw the teacher five years later as a sophomore in high school, she said she still used that exam for proofreading in her fifth grade English class, and there had only been one other student after me to pass it. How crazy is that?!

    I really like that you broke down the assessment of the riddle and explained the real reason why people so often miss the other three Fs. I appreciate even more that you clarify intelligence has nothing to do with it! It seems as though an individual’s level of attention to detail and the time taken to review the sentence are the main two contributing factors whether the right answer will be given.

    Great post! I will definitely be stopping in often to fulfill my English-nerd desires and improve my writing ability!

    • Hi Liz,
      Thanks for your great story. During my maths courses at uni, I also developed a strong mistrust of the word ‘interesting’, as in “you’ll like the homework, it’s interesting”. It usually meant that is was either really hard, or it looked really easy but had a huge gotcha! in there.
      Looks like you were right to have a closer look ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Dinh

    Great riddle. Of course I got the wrong answer even though I skimmed the words and counted the Fs.
    Great example of intent and what you are asking as oppose to what people interpret.

  4. This is amazing. I initially spotted 3 ‘f’s and then I noticed the ‘of’s and got it correct. I think it’s quite clear that I’m not a native English speaker. But that doesn’t mean I’m good at proofreading either. I still rely on Grammarly.

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