Quick! Which of these is the most common lowercase version of the letter “G"? Don’t look around!

A two-story lowercase G with its link on the right and an ear on the right
A two-story lowercase G with its link on the right and an ear on the left
A two-story lowercase G with its link on the left and an ear on the right
A two-story lowercase G with its link on the left and an ear on the left

Nope, that’s not quite right. Don’t worry, though, you’re far from the only one to choose incorrectly.

Recently a team of cognitive scientists at Johns Hopkins University asked 25 college-educated, native-English speakers to do this same exercise, and % picked “g” like you did. Only 28% chose the correct letterform: “g.” Nonetheless, we’ve rewritten the article to use “g,” the letterform you chose.

Nice! You nailed it, but plenty of people get this wrong.

Recently a team of cognitive scientists at Johns Hopkins University asked 25 college-educated native-English speakers to do this same exercise, and only 28% picked the correct “g,” like you did. If you want to see what those other “g”s would look like in text, select one and the article below will change.

So what’s up with “g”?

There are two versions of lowercase “G” you’re likely to come across daily: There’s the one that appears in most, if not all, of your Roman-script books, and which you’ll see all over the web. That’s the two-story “g” of most serif typefaces, with a closed-loop tail coming out of the bottom left of the main circle (also called the bowl). And there’s the one you likely use when writing by hand, with an open-loop tail coming out of the bottom or top right of the bowl: “g.”

It’s not shocking that a Roman-script letter has multiple common forms. Consider “A,” which in lowercase has a two-story version with a curve across the top, “a,” and a one-story version commonly used in handwriting—and in the italicized version of Quartz’s default font, PT serif: “a.”

Most people are aware of the two lowercase “A”s, though; the two versions of lowercase “G” seem to be far less recognizable. The same Johns Hopkins researchers instructed a different group of people, 16 undergraduate students, to read a paragraph and pay special attention to the “g”s, and then asked them to reproduce the letter. About half attempted to draw a “g,” while the other half drew “g”s.

The “g” prevails in print; it’s the preferred design for the serif fonts used in most books. On the web, lowercase “G”s are split: Times New Roman, Calibri, Georgia, and PT Serif have the closed-loop “g.” Arial (Gmail’s old default font), Roboto (one of Gmail’s new default fonts), Helvetica, Gotham, and San Francisco (Apple’s system font) use the open-loop “g.” In 2015, Google changed its logo font from a serif to a sans-serif, and accordingly, the squiggle underneath its “g” slid to the right and relaxed its tail.

It might be that “g” sticks out in people’s minds more strongly because it’s the one they write. “Perhaps there is an advantage to actually writing the letters, so when you write them, you create a better representation of the shape in your memory,” hypothesizes Gali Ellenblum, a PhD student in Johns Hopkins’ cognitive science department, and one of the researchers on the recent study.

And perhaps, in the same way the mind is able to read a word even when its ltteres are jublmed, we are able to read words without paying attention to the tiny details of their letterforms. “Competent readers read patterns of shapes, and especially patterns of positive and negative space,” Gerry Leonidas, associate professor of typography at the University of Reading, writes by email. “Details of type can be modified hugely if the linguistic context is familiar, as any type designer could tell you."

But how did we get these two letterforms to begin with? As with most of our contemporary letterforms, the two lowercase “G”s can be traced to what the hand wants to do. “Our entire lowercase is ultimately a mutation and restructuring of the capital forms,” writes font designer Tobias Frere-Jones by email. “The development took centuries, and went through many stages in multiple locations across the northern half of Europe, but all of them were informed by handwriting rather than stone-carving.”

In a passage from his 1918 book, The Alphabet, legendary type designer Frederic W. Goudy demonstrated one possible journey of “g” forms across centuries, stemming from the capital “G.” In his 1931 book, An Essay on Typography, Eric Gill came to a similar conclusion.

One might think that “g” is our hands’ natural simplification of some complex, old-timey “g,” but because of regional differences in how and why people wrote throughout Europe’s pre-printing history, the story is far more circuitous, says Leonidas. For example, the highly formal blackletter style used in 13th-century Germanic regions had a lowercase “G” that was one story, like the “g,” prior to pervasive examples of “g.”

Later, in 14th- and 15th-century Renaissance Italy, writers were less concerned with conserving a formal lettering style. They experimented with their forms, and, crucially, they wrote more quickly. Some of the scribes at that time speedily drew the tail of the lowercase “G” back into itself, making a tighter loop at the bottom, rather than drawing the pen all the way back up to the bowl. As a result, the typefaces that imitated these handwritten forms exaggerated and stylized the space between the bowl and the loop lower down, resulting in that little hump that looks like the bridge in a pair of spectacles. According to Leonidas, the typed “g” we have today can pretty directly be traced back to these Renaissance “g” letterforms, as they were used in foundational Roman typefaces that lasted through centuries of printing.

Still yet another thread of our typography lineage can be traced to the “chancery” handwriting of the early 1400s, a precursor to the style we today call italics. Our written “g” can be traced to chancery “g”s, says Leonidas.

Whatever the true origin story of “g” and “g,” these kinds of mysteries abound in English, and indeed, likely in all languages. Quirks, habits, and inconsistencies shape the way we write and speak. It ain’t only a g thang.