Saturday, October 27, 2012

Of Numbers of Letters

Part One
Today we stick our toes into the enormous ocean that is word puzzles. From Anagrams to Crosswords, word puzzles differ from riddles in that they rely heavily on our knowledge and understanding of the English language.

A Set of letter tiles from a board game
can help when solving anagrams.
Now I know how your minds work, and by now you know how mine words, so you're thinking 'Why does it mention numbers in the title when it's all about words?'.

Well, when it comes down to is, most word problems are all about numbers. There are of course riddles which are about the subtleties of language and crosswords which require general knowledge, but when it comes down to anagrams the secret is most definitely numbers.

Here's an anagram, try and solve it the traditional way - that is to say stare at it until the answer comes to you - for a couple of minutes before reading on.

Solving an Anagram

It isn't impossible to solve by any means, but it's a lot easier to solve when you consider certain things about the English language as a whole. Most people are familiar with letter frequency tables, a similar thing exists for groups of letters; pairs for instance, called digraphs and three letter groups, called trigraphs.

Knowing which groups of letters are most likely to make up your solved anagram cuts down drastically on the number of possibilities you have to search you mind for. Anagram solving is definitely a numbers game.

Here are the ten most common digraphs and trigraphs from Scott Bryce's website.

The most common digraphs in order of frequency


The most common trigraphs in order of frequency


We can eliminate all the letter groups which contain a letter not in our puzzle; which turns out to be most of them. There are three trigraphs for consideration ION, TIO and FOR, similarly only three digraphs remain AN, IN and ON.

By now I'm sure your mind has jumped to TION as a likely ending to the word combining two each of our trigraphs and diagraphs, leaving us with just seven letters to arrange, three of them may be in the order FOR which would leave either IN or AN as a likely group and either MA or MI to go with each respectively MA is a good deal more comon than MI which gives IN instead if AN.

If we put that all together we get IN-FOR-MA-TION; and if you want to play with anagrams, that one came from Word Smith.

If you want to get into word puzzles then learning the most common letter sequences is an absolute must. The more you read, the more you will develop a natural feeling for which letters fit where. I also recommend watching channel four's brilliant Countdown which gives plenty of practice for budding word smiths.

Here's another anagram for you to put your new found skills to the test.

Coming Up With A Solution

We're going to be getting to grips with words over the next couple of weeks, so read, read, read, as much as you can in preparation and until next time, keep puzzling.

photo credit: richardjingram via photopin cc

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