How to Solve a Cryptogram

If you're new to cryptograms, this brief solving tutorial will show you some of the basic methods seasoned solvers use to crack their codes. This is by no means an exhaustive list, however! Every solver is different, and each has their own favorite ways to attack a puzzle.

#1. Start with the one-letter words.

Many, if not most puzzles, will have one or more words which are composed of only a single letter. In the english language, the only two commonly used one-letter words are I and a, so it's usually a safe bet that any single-letter word in your puzzle can be decoded to one of those two. In very rare cases, a puzzle may use the word O in a poetic or archaic sense, so this rule won't always pan out, but 99% of the time this is an easy and convenient way to get a foothold into the puzzle.

#2. Frequency analysis and the importance of ETAOIN.

Frequency analysis is a fancy term for a simple idea - certain letters appear far more often in the english language than others. That's where ETAOIN comes in handy. No, that's not the name of an exotic tribe or an extinct tongue. ETAOIN is simply a mnemonic device combining the six letters which appear most frequently in the english language. The letter 'E' appears much more frequently than any other letter in the alphabet, with 'T' the most common after that, 'A' the third most common, and so on.

How does this help? Well, you'll notice in our cryptograms, we provide a number below each letter. That number tells you how often that particular letter appears in the puzzle (i.e. that letter's "frequency analysis"). If, for example, a letter appears twelve times in a puzzle, much more often than any other letter, then it is a very good bet (though by no means certain) that that letter can be decoded to one of the ETAOIN group. More often than not, it will decode to 'E' or 'T'.

#3. Contractions and possessives are your friend.

You may have hated learning about contractions in grade-school, but here in crypto-land, contractions are extremely useful! Contractions are simply words that combine two words into a shorter, single word by replacing certain internal letters with an apostrophe. Some examples are don't, they've, he'll, he's, I'm, she'd, etc. Possessives also use apostrophes in a similar way, to show ownership - i.e. woman's, child's, dog's, etc.

The reason contractions and possessives are so useful in decoding cryptograms is that only a small number of letters can be used in them immediately after the apostrophe. Possessives will only ever use 'S' - contractions have more options, however:

Common Endings for Contractions (With Examples)
'Twon't don't isn't aren't weren't shouldn't didn't can't
'She's she's it's
'DI'd he'd she'd they'd
'MI'm
'REthey're you're
'VEthey've you've
'LLI'll he'll she'll they'll it'll

So be on the lookout for possessives and contractions. They won't appear in every puzzle, but they are fairly common and can often be an easy way to break into an otherwise frustrating puzzle. (Also remember that if you decode the post-apostrophe letter of a contraction to a 'T', then the letter immediately before the apostrophe is almost certainly an 'N'!)

#4. Move on to the two- and three-letter words.

By now you maybe have placed an 'A' or an 'I' on the board, if there were any one-letter words available, and maybe you've even placed an 'E' or a 'T' via frequency analysis. At this point you may start to see some two- and three-letter words which now have a single letter decoded in them. There are only a handful of common two-letter words, and not very many more three-letter words, so you can start analyzing each to see where they may and may not fit.

Most Common Two- and Three-Letter Words
Two Letters:of to in it is be as at so we he by or on do if me my up an go no us am
Three Letters:the and for are but not you all any can had her was one our out day get has him his how man

Be especially sure to search for appearances of 'THE' and 'AND' - two of the most commonly used words in the english language. Even if no letters have yet been decoded you can often use frequency analysis (remember ETAOIN?) to find one or both of these words. Look for three letter words with a frequency analysis pattern of HIGH-MEDIUM-HIGH (for 'THE') and HIGH-HIGH-MEDIUM (for 'AND'). This will generally work better for longer puzzles - the more letters that appear in total in a puzzle, the more likely the statistical distribution of letters in that puzzle will approach the language-wide averages represented by ETAOIN.

#5. Look for digraph patterns.

Certain less-common letters in the english language tend to "pair up" with other letters in two-letter sequences commonly referred to as "digraphs." 'H' is one example - particularly when it is the last letter of a word. A partially-decoded word like ----H, for example, will probably end in -CH, -PH, -SH or -TH, just because there are very few other letters that can pair up with H near the end of a word.

Useful Letters with Commonly Appearing Digraphs
HCH SH TH PH WH
KCK SK LK KE
QQU
XEX

It is also extremely useful to look for double-letter digraphs, i.e. letters which appear in duplicate (one directly after the other) in the same word. These can often be a dead giveaway, and especially so in 3- and 4-letter words. Only two vowels, 'E' and 'O', are commonly used as double-letter vowel digraphs, though there are rare exceptions: 'AA' in words like AARDVARK or BAZAAR, 'II' in words like RADII or SKIING, 'UU' in words like VACUUM and CONTINUUM.

Common Words with Double-Letter Digraphs
3 Lettersall add bee boo ell ebb egg fee goo too tee see
4 Lettersball been beer beet beep bell boom boot book bull butt call cell coon dell doll door doom fall fell feel feet foot food fool fuss full gull gall hall hell heed heel hill hull hoop hood hoof hoot jeep keen keel keep less lees mall need peel pall pool poof poll poor peek pass root reel reef reed roll room rood sass sell seen seem seed seek seer seep soon soot sill tall tell teen teem teed tool wall well watt weed week weep

#6. Consider common prefixes and suffixes

Longer words with more than 5 or 6 letters will often contain prefixes and/or suffixes, both of which can be a big help in decoding a puzzle. Try to keep some of the more common prefixes and suffixes in mind for these longer words, and see if any of them might fit the bill.

Common Prefixes and Suffixes
PrefixesDE- DIS- EN- EM- IN- IM- MIS- OVER- PRE- RE- UN-
Suffixes-ABLE -AL -ED -EN -ER -EST -FUL -IBLE -IC -ING -ION -IVE -LESS -LY -MENT -NESS -OUS

Some of those suffixes also have frequently appearing, longer variants which can sometimes decode additional letters:

Common Suffix Variants
-ION-TION -ATION -ITION
-OUS-IOUS -EOUS -ATIOUS -ITIOUS
-IVE-ATIVE -ITIVE

#7. Remember the more common words.

We've already covered common words with one, two and three letters, but there are a handful of other, longer words which also appear frequently in the english language.

Common English Language Words
4 lettersthat with have this will your from they know want been good much some time very when come here just like long make many more only over such take than them well were
5 lettersabout where which their there today every would after other being first great these since under where while after
6+ lettersthrough people between before

#8. Consider the source.

Apart from words which appear frequently in the english language in general, you should also keep in mind the context of the cryptogram you're trying to decode. In our puzzles on Cryptograms.org, we give you the author/source of each puzzle up front, so that should immediately offer some basic contextualization clues. Ask some basic questions based on the source, such as: (1) was this a man or a woman? (2) what time period was this quote originally from? (3) what field/area was the author particularly known for?

Say, for example, the source was Martin Luther King Jr.. You can make an educated guess that his quote may have something to do with the 1960s civil rights movement. (Look for words like 'rights', 'freedom' or 'oppression'.) A quote by Gloria Steinem may have something to do with women's rights or feminism. (You might look for words such as 'woman' or 'women.')

#9. Look for comparative and superlative words.

Always remember that most cryptograms are encoded quotations, aphorisms, apothegms and jokes. As such, there are certain words that appear much more often in cryptograms than perhaps they do in the everyday english language. Quotations, aphorisms and jokes often try to make a general point of some sort about life, love, people, society, etc. As such they often rely on "comparatives" and "superlatives" to make that point.

Common Comparatives and Superlatives
always / neverusually / rarelyoften / rarely
best / worstmost / leastmore / less
better / worseeveryone / nooneeverybody / nobody
everything / nothingeverywhere / nowhere 

#10. Keep an eye out for tell-tale word/phrase patterns.

There are a handful of frequently-appearing words (see tips #4, #7 and #9) which have very distinct patterns when at least one or more of the ETAOIN group has been uncovered. Here are some examples:

Some Tell-Tale Word Patterns
A--A--
ALWAYS
-E-E-
NEVER
-EO--E
PEOPLE
-E--EE-
BETWEEN
E-E--
EVERY
E-E-
EVEN or EVER

#11. Pay attention to punctuation and sentence structure.

It is all too easy to focus exclusively on individual words in the cryptogram, and not the entire sentence structure as a whole. Remember these things from grade school?

That's called a "sentence diagram." It labels individual parts of speech for each element in a sentence. Now don't worry, you don't need to do a sentence diagram on each cryptogram! But it will help to try to conceptualize what parts of speech are already revealed within the cryptogram, in order to determine what kinds of words might appear immediately before or after them. If, for example, you've already revealed the word "THE" or "HIS", it is very likely that the word immediately after it will be a noun or an adjective.

Punctuation can also be a key clue. If there is a short word immediately after a comma, for example, chances are good that it will be one of the more common conjunctions (and, but, for, yet, or, so, nor, etc.).

#12. Look for contextual repetition and counterpoint.

Many quotes and aphorisms utilize the classic rhetorical art of repetition. Ever listen to a politician's speech and realize that a certain word or phrase was constantly being repeated throughout? That's not by accident! Orators throughout history have known that repetition is a crucial element of a persuasive argument.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that many of the quotes you'll find in cryptograms include repeated words or phrases within them. Here are some examples:

"We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender."
— Winston Churchill

"Today, as never before, the fates of men are so intimately linked to one another that a disaster for one is a disaster for everybody."
— Natalia Ginzburg

Of course, exact repetition like that shown above won't really help very much in a cryptogram, since once you've decoded one of the appearances, the others will be decoded automatically. Where rhetorical repetition really comes in handy is when it involves either "contextual repetition" (where ideas are repeated with different words) or "counterpoint" (where one idea is provided as the exact opposite of another).

Here are some examples of contextual repetition, where the same idea is repeated but with slightly different words:

"I can think of nothing less pleasurable than a life devoted to pleasure."
— John D. Rockefeller

"It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible."
— David Brin

And here are some examples of counterpoint, where opposite concepts or ideas are presented against each other:

"It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place."
— H. L. Mencken

"Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise."
— Bertrand Russell

And in case you missed them... as a nod to technique #9 (superlatives and comparatives), notice that of the above six quotations, five of them contained superlatives or comparatives: never (Churchill and Ginzburg), nothing and less (Rockefeller), more (Brin), and everything (Russell).

#13. Proper nouns, onomatopoeia and uncommon words.

If nothing seems to work for a particular word, and the patterns seem too screwy to match any commonly-used word in the english language, remember that some quotes contain proper nouns (names of places or people), unusual forms of onomatopoeia (like 'boink' or 'kaboom' or 'whammo'), or just plain odd or unusual words that may have no meaning outside of a very specific niche. If you've tried every other possible permutation and nothing works, start thinking "outside of the box" for one of these.

#14. Remember: no letter will decode to itself.

This one is sweet and simple. No letter will ever decode to itself. So if there's a 'V' in the cryptogram, you automatically know that the 'V' doesn't decode to 'V'. This is one of those rules that only helps out once in a while, but sometimes it can be the difference between solving a puzzle and being completely stumped!

#15. Use the list of remaining letters to your advantage.

Since every letter is decoded to one, and only one, letter, you'll know that once you've uncovered the 'T', for example, no other letter in the puzzle will also decode to 'T'. A big benefit of solving cryptograms online is that we provide you with a constantly-updated list of "Remaining Letters" at the bottom of each puzzle. This can often be a big help if you're stuck on a word or two near the end of a puzzle, and more than one word will fit. Consult the remaining letters and work only with those to rule in or out all possible permutations.

#16. When all else fails... use trial and error.

There's no shame in finding a puzzle so difficult and inscrutible that none of the above techniques can help you reveal a single definitive letter in the cryptogram. This is particularly true of cryptograms which are either (1) extremely short or (2) use few or no 1-, 2- or 3-letter words.

In cases like these, give trial and error a shot! The beauty of our online cryptograms is that there's no penalty for guessing, and you don't need to pull out an eraser to remove your mistakes. Try placing an 'S' somewhere and see what happens. If it causes an extremely unlikely series of letters to appear (say, a word starting with "SS"), then you'll know the 'S' probably doesn't go there, and you can try something else. All it takes is a keystroke to remove an errant letter, so don't be shy about peppering in some guesses here and there when needed.

#17. ???

If you have a hint or technique which isn't listed above, we'd love to hear about it! Just use the contact form at the bottom right of this page to drop us a line.



 

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