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How to solve an anagram

Many word games—Scrabble, Words with Friends, Scribbage, Quiddler, and more—involve anagrams, or unscrambling letters to make a word. This month, we’re going to take a look at how to do that unscrambling.

Here is the first anagram for you to solve: naitp.

You could solve this with a brute force method, like a computer would. With seven letters, there are 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1, or 120, possibilities. You could work through all of them and look them up in the OED or in your own mental lexicon to find the ones that are legitimate words. At about a minute for each combination, that would take about two hours, not an efficient pace for people. We humans have to try other methods and here are some strategies.

1. Look for likely combinations of consonants

You can start with consonant patterns. Look at naitp, ignoring vowels at first. Instead of 120 combinations, there are just six: ntp, tnp, pnt, ptn, tpn, npt. Then you can expand those to 12 possibilities by adding the vowel sequences a-i and i-a between the three consonants. You’ll find the word patin that way.

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“G4C15 Public Arcade at Tribeca Family Street Fair: Zynga.org Words with Friends EDU” by Games for Change. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

You’ll also want to consider possibilities where the consonants cluster together. Here you can eliminate the initial combinations nt, tn, pn (which only occurs in long borrowed words like pneumonia and pneumatic), pt (which is limited to things like pterodactyl), tp, and np. Next think about combinations that might occur at the end of a word or syllable. You can eliminate tn, pn, tp, and np. Which leaves p—nt and n—pt. Trying the vowel combinations ai and ia between the dashes, you’ll quickly find paint. And when you try the vowels i and a at the beginning and end of each combo, you also get pinta and inapt.

2. When possible, start with suffixes

English makes word forms by adding endings. Some of these show grammatical distinctions of number, tense, aspect, comparison, and so on: The letters s, i, n, g, e, and r play a special role in building words: happy + er yields happier, write+ing+s gives writings, awake + en makes awaken, cook + ed is cooked. Inflection aside, new words are also formed by endings that shift the part of speech of a word: –y, -al, –ness, -th, -ity, -ish, -ly,-ion, -ian, –y, -ify, -ist, -ism, -able and –ible, -ance and –ence, -er and –re, -ize and -ise.

Why do suffixes help? Well, consider the anagram gineald. With 7 letters, there are 5040 possibilities, which will take far longer by brute force than the 2 hours needed for naitp. But if you recognize the gin of gineald as the ending –ing, you are left with eald, which gives you just 4 x 3 x 2 x 1= 24 choices, a manageable number to work out. You should quickly find the words leading and dealing.

3. Don’t forget prefixes

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“Triple Letter Score (227/365)” by derrickcollins. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Some English prefixes involve the same letters as suffixes: –ed and de-, -er and re-, -en and en-. So, you can often find another anagram by flipping these endings to the front of the word: naitpre will yield both painter and repaint. English has dozens of other common prefixes that are worth getting to know—from a- (a+moral), bi- (bi+monthly) and con- (con+front) to di-, ex-, in-, mis-, per-, pre-, pro- re-, tri-, un-, and more. You can do the same reverse engineering with prefixes as with suffixes or you can recheck for prefixes after you’ve partially solved the anagram. Thus, looking at all of the possible prefixes in naitpre/painter/repaint will cause you to check in-, pre-, per-, and tri- and will soon lead you to the additional word pertain.

Try this one: roosnie. It’s got a lot of vowels and plenty of room for suffixes. The oo might suggest the word soon but quickly you run out of options for the rest: soon+ier, soon+eri, soon+ire, soon+rie. Instead focus on the possible endings –s,- en, -ens, -es, -ies, -er, -ier,-ion, -ions. Working back from the longest ending first, you might try –ions with various combinations of e, o, and r: eor+ions- reo+ions, oer+ions, roe+ions, ero+ions, and ore+ions. No luck. But if you try the next longest ending, –ion and shift the s to the root you get to the word erosion.

Here is one more example: When you have a lot of consonants and few vowels, it pays to start with familiar consonant combinations. Suppose you have the letters: etstlah. Working first with the likeliest consonant clusters gives you st-, -th, -st, -lth, and before long to the word stealth.

Now you give it a try. Here are four string of letters: sretkirc, blissope, creegin, and scedrin. You should be able to find the anagrams for each of them (the last one has three possibilities). The answers are below.

*sretkirc = trickers, blissope = possible, creegin = generic and scedrin = discern, rescind or cinders

Image Credit: “Brain Letter Blocks” by amenclinicsphotos ac. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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  1. […] Oxford University Press Blog – How to Solve an Anagram (Professor Battistella): http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/solve-anagram-game/ […]

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