How to Solve a Cryptogram (2024)

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.

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.

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'.

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'!)

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

TwoLetters:of to in it is be as at so we he by or on do if me my up an go no us am
ThreeLetters: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.

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

3Lettersall add bee boo ell ebb egg fee goo too tee see
4Lettersball 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

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

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

4lettersthat 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
5lettersabout where which their there today every would after other being first great these since under where while after
6+lettersthrough people between before

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.')

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

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

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?

How to Solve a Cryptogram (1)

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.).

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).

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

How to Solve a Cryptogram (2024)

FAQs

How to Solve a Cryptogram? ›

A cryptogram is a puzzle with an encrypted message, where each letter in the message has been substituted by another letter of the alphabet. As you guess each substitution, add the letter everywhere it occurs in the puzzle, and the message will start to reveal itself.

What is the strategy for solving cryptograms? ›

Cryptography 101: Basic solving techniques for substitution ciphers
  1. Scan through the cipher, looking for single-letter words. ...
  2. Count how many times each symbol appears in the puzzle. ...
  3. Pencil in your guesses over the ciphertext. ...
  4. Look for apostrophes. ...
  5. Look for repeating letter patterns.
Sep 27, 2021

How do you figure out cryptograms? ›

A cryptogram is a puzzle with an encrypted message, where each letter in the message has been substituted by another letter of the alphabet. As you guess each substitution, add the letter everywhere it occurs in the puzzle, and the message will start to reveal itself.

What is the cryptogram code? ›

A cryptogram is a kind of secret code. The formal name for this particular kind of code is a simple substitution cipher. Strictly speaking, a code is a method of disguising a message that uses a dictionary of arbitrarily chosen replacements for each possible word.

What is an example of a cryptogram? ›

Cryptograms in newspapers and magazines are usually based on a simple substitution cipher, often replacing each letter in the alphabet with a different one. The letter A, for example, might be represented by the letter K, while the letter K is represented by the letter R.

What is the trick to solving puzzles? ›

Turn all the pieces up the right way

By turning the pieces all to face upwards, you'll be able to see the image clearly and it will save time having to go through each piece individually. It is also easier to look at pieces and see if they match colours or patterns and be able to sort them together (see tip number 4!).

What is the difference between a cipher and a cryptogram? ›

A cryptogram is a type of puzzle that consists of a short piece of encrypted text. Generally the cipher used to encrypt the text is simple enough that the cryptogram can be solved by hand. Substitution ciphers where each letter is replaced by a different letter or number are frequently used.

What is cryptograms substitution code? ›

General Substitution Cryptograms

General Substitution Ciphers substitute one letter of the alphabet with another letter or symbol. For example, in a piece of text the word THE may be replaced by the word FSQ, where F represents T, and S represents H, and Q represents an E.

What is the program that solves cryptograms? ›

quipqiup is a fast and automated cryptogram solver by Edwin Olson. It can solve simple substitution ciphers often found in newspapers, including puzzles like cryptoquips (in which word boundaries are preserved) and patristocrats (inwhi chwor dboun darie saren t).

How does the cryptogram work? ›

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.

How to decode a code? ›

What is the approach to solve the questions of this section?
  1. Observe alphabets or numbers given in the code keenly.
  2. Find the sequence it follows whether it is ascending or descending.
  3. Detect the rule in which the alphabets/numbers/words follow.
  4. Fill the appropriate letter/number/word in the blank given.

How to solve a cryptogram with symbols? ›

To start out, look for the most frequent letter (or symbol) in each cryptogram — you'll find it's almost always E. Single-letter words will be A or I. The words THE, AND, and THAT are the most commonly seen short words in English. Double letters and apostrophes are also helpful when cracking ciphers.

How do you solve code words? ›

The best approach to solving is to enter the starter letters, wherever the relevant numbers appear, and once these are in, to see if any words suggest themselves. For several reasons, undertaking an analysis of letter frequency is not very useful as an approach to solving these puzzles.

What are two letter words in cryptogram? ›

The most common two-letter words are of, to, in, it, is, be, as, at, so, we, he, by, or, on, do, if, me, my, up, an, go, no, us, am. The most common three-letter words are the and and. Tailor Made Frequency Tables: If possible, tailor the table of frequencies to the message you are trying to decipher.

What is the best puzzle strategy? ›

EXPERT TIP: Work on a small section at a time instead of trying to place pieces throughout the puzzle. Starting with an area that has a pattern or wording and working your way out, work your way toward the edge of the puzzle. If you get stuck, start on a new section.

Do cryptograms help your brain? ›

Cryptograms can improve memory, focus, and concentration. To solve the puzzle, it's necessary to pay close attention to details and use their brains in a variety of ways. Solving cryptograms requires students to use logical thinking, deductive reasoning, and trial-and-error to decode the encrypted message.

How do you solve the codebreaker puzzle? ›

The most obvious tip is to go through and write in the start letters straight away. Use the cross-off grid to keep track of which letters you have placed so that you don't accidentally place more than one letter at once. Sometimes the starting letters will give you a tip off as to a word straight away, but not always.

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