How to Solve a Cryptogram

Four Parts:Learning the BasicsCracking the First LettersRecognizing Common PatternsThinking Outside the Box

Cryptograms can be fun brain-teasers and mind-melters, or they can quickly leave you wanting to throw your pencil against the wall. Learning a few easy patterns and tricks, though, can help you crack the code and make them a whole lot more fun. Eager to work one out to the end? Get started by learning the basics, then learning patterns and thinking outside the box to get those blanks filled in. See Step 1 for more information.

Part 1
Learning the Basics

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    Understand the way a cryptogram works. Most cryptograms or cryptoquotes are basic substitution ciphers, meaning that the letters of the alphabet are being represented by other letters. In some ciphers, different sorts of symbols may be used. The rules should be described somewhere on the particular cipher you're attempting to solve. A cryptogram in Klingon wouldn't be any more difficult than a cryptogram in Cyrillic, because the symbols act as patterns in the end. Find the patterns and you'll crack the code.
    • In general, the better you can divorce yourself from the letters themselves and look for the patterns underneath the letters, the closer you'll be to solving the puzzle. Try to disassociate yourself as much as possible from the letters you're looking at.
    • Cryptograms don't try to play tricks on you, however difficult they may be. In almost all cryptograms, letters will never stand for themselves. In other words, the "X" in the puzzle you're trying to work out definitely doesn't stand for "X" in the alphabet.[1]
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    Solve one letter at a time. It's unlikely that you'll recognize one mess of jumbled up nonsense letters as a particular word right away, no matter how long you look at it. try to figure out the most likely single letter words, then carry that substitution through the rest of the puzzle, filling in as many blanks as possible with educated guesses, then filling in the remaining blank spaces.
    • Completing a cryptogram is a slow process that'll require lots of guessing. You'll weigh lots of possibilities and make the best guess at the time. If, later, that guess turns out to be wrong, then change it.
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    Make the best guess, then guess again. When you've got a bunch of blanks in the words, you'll eventually have to start plugging and chugging. You might exhaust all the short words and the obvious single-letters relatively quickly, meaning you'll have next-to-nothing to work with. Learning to recognize common patterns can help you to make the most high-probability bets, so you can learn to play the odds and increase your chances of making the right guess.
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    Work in pencil. Even if you're a code-crackin' pro, the name of the game is guess-and-check, making it almost a sure thing that you'll have to change things up at some point. The best way to work a cryptogram is to do it on paper, in front of you, with a pencil.
    • It's a good idea to also keep handy a dictionary, to look up the proper spelling of words, and some scrap paper on which to scratch out possibilities. Write out all the letters in order of their most common use in the language on your piece of paper, so if it comes to blind guessing, you can use the most common guesses first.
    • The English alphabet organized in frequency of use, reads like this: E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L, U, C, W, M, F, Y, G, P, B, V, K, J, X, Q, Z. As you discover the value of each letter, write it above corresponding letter on your scratch key.
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    Embrace your mistakes. Working on a wrong assumption can be a good thing. If you've been cruising along on a puzzle, then find out you've been working with the wrong substitute for "G" for the last hour, celebrate! You know one more letter that you can eliminate as a possibility, meaning that you're one letter closer to having the cryptogram cracked. Any time you find yourself in a position in which you're sure about something, it's a good moment for a code-cracker.

Part 2
Cracking the First Letters

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    Join the E.T.A.O.I.N tribe. No, it's not a shadowy puzzle organization with decoder rings and secret handshakes. The letters e, t, a, o, i and n appear more commonly than any other letters in the English language, making this an extremely useful collection to learn to recognize. If you learn to quickly and efficiently recognize the patterns in which they appear, you'll be a pro cracker in no time.
    • Do a quick count of the most commonly-recurring letters in your cryptogram and circle them. There's a much-higher probability that that letter will be one of these. Learning to combine frequency of appearance with pattern recognition will reveal the substitutions.
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    try to pin down the one-letter words. Because cryptograms often use quotes from people, the word "I" is almost as common as the word "a," so be careful before making assumptions about words you see appearing alone. The trick to figuring out if it's "I" or "a" is to experiment with the letters in other words and look for common patterns.
    • If there is a three-letter word beginning with that same letter, the letter is almost certainly the word "a." There are a number of common three-letter words beginning with "a" and very few which start with "i."
    • If a possible three-letter word doesn't give you a good indication, try "A" first, since it's the third-most-common letter in the language. Substitute it through the rest of the puzzle and start working it. If it turns out to be wrong, you'll at least know it's got to be "I".
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    Look for contractions and possessives. Another secret-weapon in helping to get your first couple of letters cracked is the existence of the apostrophe. Signifying either a contraction (can't) or a possessive (hers), apostrophes give you an excellent indication of what's behind the apostrophe, or at least help you narrow down the possibilities.
    • An apostrophe with one letter behind it has to be either t, s, d, or m.
    • Apostrophes with two letters behind, have to be either "re," "ve," or "ll."
    • To distinguish between possessives and contractions, look at the letter before the apostrophe. If it's always the same, you almost definitely have the "n't" combination. If not, then you're more likely dealing with the possessive.[2]
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    Start on two-letter words. Using what you know about the frequency of letters appearing and what you've gathered from context clues about individual-word letters and apostrophes, you can get cracking more by starting in on the short two-letter words.
    • The most common two-letter words are: of, to, in, it, is, be, as, at, so, we, he, by.
    • If you find two two-letter words where the letters are reversed, you've got either "no" and "on." You just have to figure out which is which!
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    Start in on the three-letter words. The word "the" is extremely common and can be measured against "that" for a good indication of letters. For instance, if a sentence contains both "BGJB" and "BGD," you can be pretty confident that you're on the right track, and B = T. In the same cryptogram, "BGDL" would most likely be "then" and "BGDZD" would be "there."
    • The most common three-word letters in English are: the, and, for, are, but, not, you, all, any, can, her, was, one, our, out, day, get, has, him, his, how, man.[3]

Part 3
Recognizing Common Patterns

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    Look for common prefixes and suffixes. Words longer than 5 or 6 letters will most of the time include some kind of common prefix or suffix, of which you can learn to look for, to make discovering the substitutions much easier.[4]
    • Common prefixes include: anti-, de-, dis-, en-, em-, in-, im-, pre-, il-, ir-, mid-, mis-, non-.
    • Common suffixes include: -able, -ible, -al, -ment, -ness, -ous, -ious, -ly.
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    Identify digraph patterns. Digraphs are two-letter combos in English that result in one sound, and most often one of the letters is an "h". These are especially useful if you find an "h" in the last position of a word, because you know only so many letters can combine with it in the correct way. It's likely either a c, p, s, or t.
    • Other common digraphs include: ck, sk, lk, ke, qu, ex.
    • Related two-letter combination lucky breaks include double-letters. These won't show up too often in cryptograms, but they're extremely helpful when you find them. "LL" is the most common double-letter combo, shortly followed by "ee".
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    Look for vowel patterns. Vowels are present in every word in English and represent almost 40% of the words in a given text. They'll almost never come three-in-a-row, or four. To narrow down the vowels and start filling in more blanks, you can learn a few vowel tips.
    • The most common vowel is "e"; the least common is "u".
    • Unless the text is about skiing or vacuuming, a doubled vowel is probably "e" or "o".
    • A pattern of repeating letters in a long word usually indicates vowels, like the "i" repeating in the word "civilization." However, if adjacent letters repeat, they're more likely to consonants.
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    Use clues from punctuation. If your cryptogram includes any punctuation, pay particularly close attention to the words on either side of it. Commas, periods, and other punctuation can clue you into several possibilities and help you start narrowing it down from there to make more educated guesses.
    • Conjunctions like "but" or "and" will often follow commas.
    • A question mark often implies a "wh" somewhere in the clause preceding it. Start looking for possibilities, if you've got a question mark at the end of the cryptogram sentence.
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    Learn to identify common cryptogram words with recognizable patterns. Like crossword, word search, and other puzzle-makers, cryptogram writers have a particular sense of humor, and know the rules and the difficulties of solving the puzzles inside and out. Look for the following relatively common words that appear in cryptograms with identifiable patterns.
    • That (or high, says, else, dead, died)
    • There/Where/These (in any case you've identified "h" and "e")
    • People
    • Always
    • Everywhere
    • Somewhere
    • William or Kennedy (if a name, otherwise look for "million" or "letters")
    • Never (or state, fewer, color, level)

Part 4
Thinking Outside the Box

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    Let the context of the cryptograph affect your guesses. Most puzzle cryptograms are relatively obscure quotations, usually aphoristic statements about "people" or "society," meaning cryptograms are small compact little philosophies. Because you know this for sure, you can sometimes start narrowing the focus in terms of the content of the cryptogram to make more educated guesses about the words. Big concepts and abstracts are the order of the day for most cryptogram puzzles.
    • Comparative and superlative words like "always" and "everywhere" will often appear in cryptograms because of the nature of the content. Other common words in this category include more, less, nobody, usually, better, worse, everything, often, and rarely.
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    Tackle the author's name in cryptoquotes. Cryptoquotes usually will usually end with the name of the author of the quote. Authors are usually identified as "first name last name", but some exceptions can be exploited."Anonymous," for example, wrote a lot of great quotes.
    • A two-letter word at the beginning of the author's name is probably Dr.
    • A two-letter word at the end of the author's name is probably a suffix like "Jr" or "Sr" or a Roman numeral as in "Pope Paul VI"
    • A short word in the middle of a name might be a common nobiliary particle like "de" or "von."
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    Use the structure of English sentences to fill in the blanks. You probably don't need to diagram out the sentence in your cryptogram, but if you can anticipate the placement or definite and indefinite articles, linking verbs, and other common constructions, you'll be a lot closer to the answer.
    • Look for nouns after personal pronouns like "his" or "hers."
    • Recognize helping verbs, like am, be, been, or have, which precede another verb, in a sentence like, "I am helping you learn to solve cryptograms." They are usually never more than 5 letters.
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    Understand repetition and counterpoint and exploit it in your solutions. Many sentences will work in some kind of parallel structure, recalling a different form or iteration of the same word somewhere later in the line. Since cryptograms are often taken from quotes and speeches, this is especially common in those rhetorical devices.
    • Many aphorisms will include binaries to compare and make a rhetorical point. If the word "truth" appears, you might also look for "lie" somewhere later in the sentence.
    • Look for alternate forms of the same word. "Pleasure" and "pleasurable" might both show up in a cryptogram. Don't bang your head against the wall trying to figure out what other word it could be that looks almost exactly the same.


  • When you think you cracked a single word, start testing your cracked code on other words in the text.
  • If you can get "t," "h," "n," "e," and "a" solved, you're well on your way to finishing the puzzle.
  • In a substitution cipher, it is possible to determine words based on the number, frequency and order of letters. For example the text ABCCD represents a 5 character word where characters 3 and 4 are the same, and the other 3 are unique. This encrypted word may represent the word "Hello".
  • An unlikely expression often found in ciphers is "The magic words are squeamish ossifrage," a tribute to the famous solution to a 1977 encryption challenge.
  • Whenever you have an I, an N or a G in the three last positions of a word, there's a good chance that the word ends in ING. Also, when you see the same three letters as endings to more than one word, this may be a clue that both words end in ING.
  • Most puzzle setters ensure that their cryptograms replace each letter with a different letter. So if the ciphertext has the word "A" and it could stand for either "A" or "I", it probably stands for "I".


  • These instructions only apply to cryptograms that are a simple substitution cipher, and where standard five-letter groupings have not been used.
  • Looking at letter frequencies can be very helpful, but don't rely on it too much. A text about puzzles and quotes might have more "z"s and "q"s than expected.

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