How To Solve A Cryptogram (Without Cheating!)

This article would show the reader the process for solving the popular puzzles called cryptograms. It takes work, but it's easy if you understand basic crytpographic principles.

Cryptograms are among the hardest (and most satisfying) word puzzles to solve. Briefly put, a cryptogram is a short statement in a simple code. It may be a famous quotation, a humorous aphorism, or some species of tongue-twister (and sometimes all at once!). The code itself is always a simple replacement code, in which one letter has been systematically substituted for another. For example, X might be used throughout for A, and D for X. Your mission is to determine what each letter in the code stands for, and to reconstruct the message in plain English.

This may seem difficult, but it's not always as hard as it seems at first glance: the puzzle's creator often leaves subtle clues, based on the characteristics of the English language itself. Short words, like a, I, an, of, and, on, and the, can be valuable clues indeed, as can contractions like I've, it's, can't, or wouldn't. Some puzzle designers deliberately avoid these words, resulting in nearly impenetrable cryptograms completely lacking in articles and contractions, losing all resemblance to written or spoken English in the process. Most, however, do not; after all, they want you to be challenged, not frustrated.

Then there's common sense. If you have a partial word that reads T?E, with the ? being the unknown word, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess that the missing letter is H. Similarly, ?ND is almost always AND, while T??T is usually THAT.

If all else fails, remember these two words: etaoin shrdlu. This is a mnemonic for the 12 most commonly-used letters in the English language, in order of commonality. The letter E is by far the most common; it's extremely difficult to write a sentence lacking an E, though it's not impossible. The next most common letters are T, A, and O. If you keep your friend Etaoin Shrdlu in mind, you can usually puzzle out even the most difficult cryptogram.

Let's try an example, shall we? This one requires the use of all of the techniques I've outlined above. I've made it a bit long so that the principles of letter commonality come into play.

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

GSHBEYF.

Short Words First

There is just one single-letter word in the puzzle, represented by the F between the sixth and eighth words. One-letter words are always either "a" or "I", with "a" being more common. In this case, we can try replacing F with A. So far, then, this is how the puzzle reads:

"--'- ----- --- -A-- -- --- A ---- ----A----,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

-A-- --- ------, A- -- A------- --- -------

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

------A.

GSHBEYF.

The 13th word is probably an, at, or as, but it's too early to make such an assumption. Let's move on.

Next Come Contractions

Now that we've looked for little words, let's check for contractions. In this case, there's only one: the very first word. This consists of a three-letter word with one letter in the contracted part. This limits us to "is", "would," or "had" contractions; that is, those that end in 's or 'd. Assuming no slang is involved, it's very unlikely for this word to end in 't, which is the other common single-letter ending for contractions. A less common ending, 'm, is also unlikely; this is usually seen with the word "I'm", which isn't long enough.

Of the two likely endings, 's, the contraction for "is", is most common, so let's try M = S.

"--'S ----- --- -A-- -- --- A ---- ----A----,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SA-- --- ------, AS -- A------- --S -------

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

------A.

GSHBEYF.

So it turns out that the 13th word is "as". The word "ad" (short for "advertisement") might fit, but "as" is more common, so let's assume it's correct. If necessary, we can change it later. What's next, then?

Common Sense, Part I

Next, we try a little horse sense. This is obviously a quote since it contains quotation marks, so it seems likely that the tenth word, immediately following the closing quotation mark, is "says" or "said". Now, we've already decided that M = S, so G cannot equal S as well. Besides, it's more common for quotes to be in the past tense, so we can confidently identify this word as "said." Therefore, S = I and G = D.

Now we have:

"I-'S ----- --- -A-- -- --- A ---D -D--A-I--,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID --- ----I-, AS -- A------D -IS -------

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DI----A.

GSHBEYF.

Things are looking up! Three words are entirely solved, and we've got a few other clues staring us in the face. Few contractions take the form I-"˜S; "it's", the contraction for "it is," is the most likely candidate. In addition, the most common three-letter word ending in -is is "his." Let's try this again, with O = T and P = H.



"IT'S ----- T-- -AT- T- --T A ---D -D--ATI--,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID TH- ----I-, AS H- A----T-D HIS -------

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DI----A.

GSHBEYF.

We're obviously on the right track, and our attempts thus far have revealed two additional clues. Few two-letter words start with T and H, and only one three-letter word starts with TH: the. T- is probably "to", while H- undoubtedly is "he". Therefore, E = T, and I = E.

"IT'S -E-E- TOO -ATE TO -ET A -OOD ED--ATIO-,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID THE -O--IE, AS HE A--E-TED HIS -O--E-E

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DI--O-A.

GSHBEYF.

This is where it gets harder. At this juncture you can start making assumptions, which can be messy, or you can try to determine which letter is which by examining commonality. Let's try the latter.

Letter Commonality

This approach requires a bit of pencil work. The first thing we'll do is determine the frequency of the remaining letters. A few moments of counting reveals the following frequencies:

R = 2; T = 1; K = 1; B = 4; D = 3; Q = 1; Z = 4; L = 1; Y = 2; J = 2; and H = 2.

Unfortunately, this isn't a lot to work with. Let's turn to Etaoin Shrdlu. We've already figured out most of the common letters, so we're left with N, R, L, and U. In our frequency count above, we discovered that the most common letters are B and Z (4 each), and D (3). Let's start with B first. Might it represent N? Let's see.

"IT'S -E-E- TOO NATE TO -ET A -OOD ED--ATIO-,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID THE -O--IE, AS HE A--E-TED HIS -ONNE-E

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DI-NO-A.

GSHBEYF.

Obviously, this is wrong. Who's ever heard of the phrase "too nate"? So erase the Ns and try again with R. But R won't work either:

"IT'S -E-E- TOO RATE TO -ET A -OOD ED--ATIO-,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID THE -O--IE, AS HE A--E-TED HIS -ORRE-E

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DI-RO-A.

GSHBEYF.

How about L? Actually, it looks pretty good:

"IT'S -E-E- TOO LATE TO -ET A -OOD ED--ATIO-,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID THE -O--IE, AS HE A--E-TED HIS -OLLE-E

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DI-LO-A.

GSHBEYF.

In this case, B in the puzzle must equal L in real life. A quick check of the other common letters reveals no other good fits, so we're stuck. Or are we?

Common Sense, Part II

A careful examination of the puzzle in its current state reveals a few new "common sense" clues. For example, there aren't many four-letter words ending with OOD: food, good, hood, mood, and wood are about it. We already know that P = H in this puzzle, so that gets rid of hood. D must be F, G, M, or W. Try F. This gives you the phrase "fet a food" after "too late to". This isn't very sensible, and neither is "met a mood" or "wet a wood". If you try G, though, you get this:

"IT'S -E-E- TOO LATE TO GET A GOOD ED--ATIO-,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID THE -O--IE, AS HE A--E-TED HIS -OLLEGE

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DI-LO-A.

GSHBEYF.

Clearly, D = G. Now we're getting somewhere. Let's try some more common sense; check out the 17th word, _OLLEGE. "College" springs to mind. Let's see if C = Z:

"IT'S -E-E- TOO LATE TO GET A GOOD ED-CATIO-,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID THE -O--IE, AS HE ACCE-TED HIS COLLEGE

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DI-LO-A.

GSHBEYF.

Apparently so! The 15th word, ACCE-TED, is another candidate ripe for solving. It could be "accented" or "accepted". The latter works best, meaning that H = P.

"IT'S -E-E- TOO LATE TO GET A GOOD ED-CATIO-,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID THE -O--IE, AS HE ACCEPTED HIS COLLEGE

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DIPLO-A.

GSHBEYF.

Now we've solved all but four words, and two of those are easy. Since college is mentioned, ED-CATIO- must be "education". No other word fits that pattern. For similar reasons, DIPLO-A must be "diploma". Therefore, Q = U, R = N, and Y = M.

"IT'S NE-E- TOO LATE TO GET A GOOD EDUCATION,"

"SO'M RITIK OEE BFOI OE DIO F DEEG IGQZFOSER,"

SAID THE -OM-IE, AS HE ACCEPTED HIS COLLEGE

MFSG OPI LEYJSI, FM PI FZZIHOIG PSM ZEBBIDI

DIPLOMA.

GSHBEYF.

That leaves just two words, which you should be able to solve from the context with a little thought. The term "too late" should indicate that NE-E- is "never", as in "never too late". Thus, T = V and K = R, and we've found the last of the common letters. The remaining word, -OM-IE, includes two letters that appear only once in the puzzle, so they must be uncommon. Few partial words have the form -OM-IE. It isn't "mommie" or "commie", because we already know that Y = M and Z = C. The first letter of this word, L, has not been solved. If you try uncommon letters, you'll find that B, J, Q, V, and W don't fit - but Z looks interesting, producing ZOM-IE. Running possibilities through your mind for the remaining letter, it shouldn't take long to produce ZOMBIE. Thus, J = B, and L = Z, and here's how the finished product reads:

"IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO GET A GOOD EDUCATION," SAID THE ZOMBIE, AS HE ACCEPTED HIS COLLEGE DIPLOMA.

Hurrah, we've solved the puzzle! Pat yourself on the back, break open the champagne (or at least some soda), and congratulate yourself. You now know the basics for solving a cryptogram without cheating. These tactics, while not infallible, can help you solve the great majority of cryptograms. You may not solve every one, but that's what makes them challenging. Should you hit a brick wall, put the puzzle aside and start again later. You may well get it the second time; the key is tenacity.

So what are you waiting for? Grab a pencil and start the next one!

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