How Cryptograms Work

By: Colleen Cancio

How to Solve Cryptograms

Solving a cryptogram takes patience, concentration and a bit of strategy. For the latter, you don't have to go it alone. There are as many different approaches to solving cryptograms as there are cryptograms themselves. Start by searching the text for patterns. Are there certain letters that occur more often than others? Identifying them is called frequency analysis, a good first step in solving cryptograms [source: Puzzle Baron's Cryptograms].

As a crypto-sleuth, ETAOIN is your best friend. This is a mnemonic representation of the most common English letters in order of their frequency in the language. This is important to keep in mind. If a letter in a cryptogram appears much more often than others, it's likely that it will decode to one of the letters in ETAOIN, with an even higher probability that it will decode to an "E" or "T."


When solving a cryptogram, focus on the short words first. The English language only has two one-letter words, "I" and "A," so look for single numbers that could be one or the other. Once in a while you may find a cryptogram with the archaic letter "O" (e.g., "O, say can you see…"), but it's rare. Apostrophes are also low-hanging fruit when it comes to solving cryptograms. There are a limited number of choices when it comes to letters that come before and after apostrophes (mainly contractions and possessives), so identifying them is usually easy [source: Puzzle Baron's Cryptograms].

Solving anything longer than three letters in a cryptogram becomes a bit harder. It helps to focus on digraphs, which is where two letters make one sound, such as "CH," "SH," and "TH." By identifying the letter "H" in a cryptogram, you can search for other places where it occurs at the end of a word, which is likely to be another digraph. Double consonants and double vowels also go a long way toward revealing a cryptogram's meaning.

It's important to keep in mind the theme of a cryptogram if one is given by its creator. This almost always gives a clue as to the content of the hidden phrase or quote. These strategies may be enough to crack many of the most common codes -- and perhaps even some of the more obscure ones. But remember that even the most skilled code-crackers spend a lot of time simply gazing at the puzzle and waiting for the hidden message to reveal itself.

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