How to Solve Cryptograms
by Parker Lewis and Roy Leban
Cryptograms have existed for thousands of years. Initially used for secret messages, they’re now mostly used for puzzles, and have endured in popularity, appearing in many newspapers today, including the NYT. They’re popular in the National Puzzlers’ League and there’s even a puzzling organization devoted to nothing but cryptograms and their offshoots — the American Cryptogram Association.
In order to solve a cryptogram puzzle, you must crack the code and figure out the hidden message. The code is a simple substitution cipher where each letter in a puzzle (called a cryptoletter) represents a different letter of the alphabet in the solution. This holds true for every instance where a cryptoletter appears. For example, if the cryptoletter T represents E, then everywhere you see a T in the coded message, you can replace it with E. The full mapping of the alphabet, called the cryptoalphabet, changes from puzzle to puzzle, so be sure not to carry over letter associations! The basic strategy is to continually build on what you have, using the letters you know to help figure out other letters and words in the message. Check the list of letters you’ve used (which are marked off automatically at the top of the puzzle) as you go to help you think about your possibilities. And not that, if you accidentally use the same letter twice, all instances of that letter will get marked as errors. Eventually the complete code will be cracked and you will be able to read the full message.
Here are some techniques to help get you started:
A good place to start is by looking for one-letter words. The only possible choices are A or I. Oftentimes, a cryptogram puzzle is a quotation or a quip or something else spoken in first person, so the pronoun I commonly appears.
There have been numerous studies done on letter frequency over the years and the results are useful when solving cryptograms. While there is some discrepancy as to the rest of the list, undoubtedly the most common letter overall is E. If you notice that a certain cryptoletter appears again and again, it’s quite possible that it is the ubiquitous E. The next most common letters are T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, and L. On the other end of the spectrum, letters like Q, Z, J, K, and X do not appear very often so only look for these towards the end of the solve.
When solving on paper, you have to count letters by hand. In Puzzazz, simply tap on any letter in the puzzle and all of the same letter will be highlighted, giving you a very quick way to view and compare the frequency of used letters.
Even when you have no idea what a word might be, your knowledge of how words are spelled can help you solve a cryptogram. For example, if a word begins S?R, there are only a few letters that are likely to appear between the S and the R (C, H, K, P, T plus the vowels and Y). By trying each of the possible letters (excluding those you’ve already found) wherever the same cryptoletter is used, you can narrow down the possibilities. Look for places which can take the fewest different letters. Of course, some cryptograms might contain foreign words or names, so use caution.
Another good way to get a foothold in a cryptogram is to consider the two-letter words. There are only so many valid options, so this will help narrow down the possibilities. Also, most two-letter words are either vowel/consonant or consonant/vowel which you can use to your advantage, especially if you have already determined what letter is A or I. Common examples include: AM, AN, AS, AT, BY, DO, GO, HI, IF, IN, IS, IT, ME, MY, NO, OF, ON, OR, TO.
Punctuation can be a big help, especially when you see an apostrophe. Contractions are useful because there are only a few letter combinations that follow the rules. The two most common letters after an apostrophe are S and T.
Repeating Letter Patterns
In general, this technique involves looking at certain letter combinations and noticing a pattern. If you spot a pair of letters that appears in several places throughout the cryptogram, consider what that pair might represent. Letter combinations that often appear at the start of words include: DE, DIS, MIS, OVER, PRE, RE, and UN. Letter combinations that often appear at the end of words include: CK, ND, ING, ED, TION, EN, AL, and EST. One of the most common digraphs is TH since it appears very often as well as in very common words like THE, THAT, THIS, WITH, etc.
Spotting double letters, especially in shorter words, is often helpful. EE and OO are the most likely candidates for vowels whereas most consonants can be doubled. Examine the letters before and after the double to see what combination might work. The vowels I and U are rarely doubled.
According to the rules of a cryptogram, each letter can only represent one thing. Keep track of which letters are already accounted for and what letters are still left over. This will help you towards the end of the puzzle when the number of possibilities is greatly decreased. Also keep in mind that a letter cannot represent itself meaning that the cryptoletter K cannot represent a K. Of course, puzzle constructors love to add tricks, so you might find rules violated from time to time, but you should never find them violated accidentally.
Cryptogram Lists, also called Cryptolists, are cryptogram puzzles that consist of a list of related items. The items can be a complete set of things or a few items from a large set. Each item can be a person, place, or thing, or, really, almost anything. Usually, you are not told what items you are looking for, and the puzzle itself will include a short description for you to figure out, which will tell you either the set or the items in the set. The items are always supplied in alphabetical order, which can serve as an important clue when solving, by helping you narrow down the possibilities for crypto letters.
If all else fails, don’t forget you can get hints by tapping on the icon and revealing a letter. The given letter will be revealed in all places where it occurs. It’s not cheating to ask for a hint — the goal is to have fun, so if asking for a hint increases your enjoyment, feel free. Besides, you may be surprised at how often these entries will elude you even after you know where they start.
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