Tricks To Help You Unscramble Words

For some strange reason, I have a mental blind-spot when it comes to being able to unscramble words. Pattern recognition? No problem… show me a couple of letters and I can usually guess the rest of the word. Synonyms? Alliteration? Allegories? Bring it on. But show me LUBNEMSCRA and I have a mental block against sorting it into UNSCRAMBLE.

Fortunately, there are a few tricks you can use to help unscramble words in your head.

The most important element of becoming better at unscrambling words is learning how to recognize word fragments and smaller words you can build off of. While the prior phrase LUBNEMSCRA is rather impenetrable, it contains a couple of smaller words and word fragments which you can use to build up. For example, it contains the two letter combinations “UN” and “LE”.

I generally start by hunting for common English prefixes and suffixes – sets of letters that commonly occur at the beginning or end of a word.

Some common English prefixes:

a-, acro-, allo-, an-, ante-, anti-, auto-, bi- , co-, contra-, counter-, de-, di- , dis-, down-, dys-, epi-, extra-, hemi-, hexa-, hyper-,  hypo-, ig-, il-, im-, in-,infra-,inter-,intra-,ir-,macro-,mal-,maxi-,meso-,micro-,mid-,mini-,mono-,multi-,non-,octo-,over-,pan-,para-,penta-,per-,peri-,poly-,post-,pre-,pro-,proto-,pseudo-,quadri-,quasi-,re-,self-,semi-,sub-,super-,supra-,tetra-,trans-,tri-,ultra-,un-,under-,up-,xeno-

Some common English suffixes:

s (makes anything plural), en, ed, ing, er, est, ation, sion, cian, ess, ness, al, ary, ment, able, ly, ful, ize, ate, ology, able, ible,hood, ism

Once you identify a potential suffix you can make with your letters, remove those letters from the pile and see what you can construct with the remaining letters. For example, if you were working on the scramble: HERERD, you would spot the suffix ER and ED. So we would remove one of them (ER), leaving us with HERD – a word we know! The four letter word HERD can be reassembled (herded?) with ER into HERDER, a valid answer. Looking at the alternative, ED, we are left with HERR – which isn’t something we can use to build up a word in English (granted, German speakers will disagree…).

From a statistical perspective, removing the letters associated with a prefix or suffix from the pile helps by reducing the number of possible combinations the remaining letters can be sorted into. Mathematicians refer to these different ways to unscramble a word as permutations – possible arrangements. The number of possible permutations increases with the number of letters in a word, by an order of magnitude (there are a lot more ways to rearrange six letters into unique sequences than four).. So eliminating even a few of the letters by grouping them into a prefix or suffix makes it a lot easier to unscramble the word in your head by reducing the number of possible solutions. Once you reduce the number of possible solutions, you can fiddle with the remaining letters and use a process of elimination to deduce which sequence solves the word scramble.

If you have time, you may also want to take a look at a few lists of common English root words. These are words which have been borrowed from other languages (generally German, Latin, or Greek – although it could be any language) and used as building blocks for a wide variety of english words. For example, the root word ali (and it’s cousins allo, alter) meaning “other” have been used to construct a wide variety of english words ranging from alien to alloy, alter ego, and alibi.

In addition to helping you unscramble words, studying common root words can also help expand your vocabulary. Even if you don’t know the meaning of a specific word, you can frequently make a good guess based on the root word and any common prefixes / suffixes incorporated into the word.

A second trick you can use to help unscramble a word is look at the vowels inside a word and use them to construct a framework for the other letters. Vowels are useful because, generally speaking, every syllable must contain at least one, frequently in the center of the syllable, and the remaining letters often fall into common patterns you will recognize by experience. In addition to the usual suspects (A, E, I, O, U) – keep a lookout for Y as well. Most English words and syllables (significant pieces of a word) consist of a vowel with consonants on one or both sides. So if you’ve only got a handful of vowels or a small number of vowels relative to consonants, there are a very small number of ways you can assemble a word. Lay out a couple of the consonants in a template, with a vowel in the middle, and fiddle around with possible ways to move the letters around.

You will also start to recognize some common patterns. For example, “Consonant-Vowel – Consonant-Vowel (usually E)” accounts for a large number of four letter words in the english language. If you’re looking at only a small number of vowels (1 vowel per 3 – 4 consonants), start looking for common two letter consonant pairs such as “th”. For example: ITHW can be rearranged into W I TH.

The letter S is a bit tricky in the process, since it performs double duty. Anytime you see an S, it can be used to either construct a syllable within the word you’re building or it can be tagged onto the end of the final word to make it plural. This is one of the things which makes S’s so useful in Scrabble.

For an example of this method in action, if you have the word scramble VAEWS, we recognize the “VE” pattern. If we rearrange the letters, we get _ _ VE_. In building the rest of the word, the first letter we put down is an A (before the V, the most logical way to keep a consonant inside the word): _AVE_. This leaves us two remaining letters, W and S, which we test placing within the remaining two spaces. SAVEW? Never heard of it. Thus by process of elimination, we unscramble the word into WAVES [the other placement] which IS a word we’re familiar with….

A third simple trick, derived from the second, is to attempt to build up a word by placing one of the vowels in the word scramble in the second position of the unscrambled word and then testing different consonants around it. So in the prior example, we would pick either E or A and then test putting a letter in front of and behind it. This would have gotten us to WAV, SAV, VAS, and VAW as three letter possibilities for the start of the word, which we would filter down as we tried to place the remaining letters.

The common theme in all these tricks is making the problem simpler by using what we know about the English language to reduce the number of ways to unscramble a word. We accomplish this by:

  • Guiding the solver towards specific patterns of letters
  • Eliminating letters matching common sequences from the larger set (via the use of prefixes, suffixes, and root words) and see what we can make with the remaining letters, which are now fewer in number and hopefully contain familiar patterns..

3 Replies to “Tricks To Help You Unscramble Words”

  1. This article is yet more proof that unscrambling jumbled letters is not easy; in fact it’s VERY difficult. My skill in doing this places me at the bottom of the barrel, so I came here hoping to find a way to intellectual respectability. No such luck. I’m no better prepared to solve such puzzles than I ever was.

    I got to thinking about out this when I happened to see an old video in which Dick Cavett talked about his ability to sort out scrambled letters. He said, and I believed him, that he had the curious ability to unscramble piles of letters almost instantly. It was then that I realized that it was futile for me to try to ever be any good at that. You either have it or you don’t. Sure, I could improve, but not to the point that would even partially satisfy me. Maybe I’ll try juggling. That can be learned, instantly unscrambling words can’t.

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