How To Solve Cryptograms in 7 Steps (2024)

A cryptogram is a puzzle that is written in code or cipher. Straight out of a spy movie, cryptograms ask us to figure out an unknown letter substitution cipher to decode the meaning of a jumbled word or phrase. But do you know the best ways to start decoding these puzzles?

Most cryptograms are encoded with single-transposition keys, where one letter is substituted for another. This seems to create complete gibberish on a screen, such as:

  • Ygua ua gpq smtpmr xsm zrsem gpq yp apzbr xetoyphesna.

However, there are actually very clear and deliberate ways to figure out exactly which letters are substituted to find the meaning of the cryptogram.

The key, so to speak, is to look at some of the conventions of the English language and play a game of percentages and educated guesses.

Look for Popular Letters

The first step is to realize that the most common letters in the English language are E, T, A, O, and N, with I and S a close second.

So, to solve a cryptographypuzzle, you shouldlook at what letters occur most often in the gibberish word, and work with them.

Let's usethe example from above:Ygua ua gpq smtpmr xsm zrsem gpq yp apzbr xetoyphesna.

M, R, and S appear three or four times each. Now, we can begin the process of trial and error by substituting the popular letters in this cryptogram for some more common ones.

Solve the Short Words

Solving for the short words can help you put a longer cryptogram sentence all together. Thisis especially effective for short words that have only two or three letters.

The most common two-letter words are:

For three letters, it gets a little more complicated. The most common three letter words are:

  • and

  • the

  • for

  • his

  • not

  • but

  • you

  • are

  • her

  • had

However, there are quite a few other three-letter words – for example (and to provide a hint to the solution) the three-letter words in the above cryptogram are actually canand how(one of them, GPQ, appears twice).

Spot the Repeated Letters

Other conventions of the English language can also provide clues. Only a few letters are actually ever repeated twice in a word: RR, LL, NN, MM, and fewer of these are in small words.

So, if there is a three-letter word containing repeating letters, such as SZZ, that word is almost certainly the word all.

Another very common pattern is the letters TH – they appear in boththe and that, as well as this, those, them, and more.

Look for Digraphs

The technical term for two-letter combinations that commonly appear in the English language is digraphs.

The most common digraphs are:

  • TH

  • HE

  • AN

  • IN

  • ER

  • RE

  • ES

  • ON

  • EA

  • TI (this one is especially useful in discovering the common four-letter word ending –TION)

So, in the above cryptogram, the first word is this (spoiler alert). Now you know that the letter combination YG is actuallyTH. YGdoesn't appear at the beginning of any other words, so you now know that none of them are words with TH at the beginning.

Go for the Unusual

Knowing what the words can't be is sometimes as useful as knowing what they can be. Also, knowing unusual words, such as those that begin with X, can give you a great advantage in solving cryptograms.

Don't Overlook the Obvious

Other conventions of cryptographic puzzles are also useful to know. Sometimes, cryptogramstry to throw in non-transposed letters, so that all would be encoded GLL. The trick is thata person can spend forever trying to figure out what the letter L represents (the answer being itself).

Many cryptogramsbegin with phrases like "The best…", or "Some of the…", or "The only…", and knowing that can give you a few options to try right away.

Look for the Pattern

It all comes down to making systematic educated guesses until the pattern emerges. Usually, after the vowels are figured out, it is easy to finish solving the puzzleas the phrase becomes clear.

One frustrating problem can be a cryptogram with errors in it, whether grammatical, spelling, or an encoding error;however, that can be seen as just another bit of the puzzle to figure out, above and beyond the basic cryptographic algorithm.

So, What Is the Code?

Using these step-by-step processes, you can figure out that the puzzle at the beginning of the article uses the following substitution cipher:

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

S V X F R D H G U K J Z N M P O W E A Y I B Q C T L

So the translated cryptogramreads: "This is how anyone can learn how to solve cryptograms."

Can't get enough word puzzles? Try your hand atanagramsor create your own word with our Word Maker tool.

How To Solve Cryptograms in 7 Steps (2024)
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