How to Solve Cryptograms

A cryptogram is text that has been coded using a simple substitution cipher -
each letter is replaced with another letter. For example, if this encryption key:


is used to encrypt: "This is a sentence," the cryptogram that results is:

This is a  sentence.
Hawf wf n  fbehbeyb.
T's change to H, H's change to A, I changes to W, and so on, according to the key.

Now, how do you solve a cryptogram like "Hawf wf n fbehbeyb."? Here are some tips.

Tip 1 Tip 2 Tip 3 Tip 4 Tip 5 Tip 6 Tip 7 Tip 8 Tip 9 Tip 10 Tip 11

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Tip 2:

Look for apostrophes, since they're used for contractions or possessives.

If ONE letter comes after the apostrophe, it's likely to be:

  • s - as in it's or Jane's
  • t - as in don't or wasn't. Note that the letter before apostrophe "t" is "n"
  • d - as in he'd or they'd
  • m - as in I'm

If TWO letters follow the apostrophe, you're probably looking at:

  • ll - as in you'll, if the two letters are the same
  • re - as in you're or they're
  • ve - as in I've or would've
  • Notice that if the two letters are different, the 2nd letter is "E".

If NO letters follow the apostrophe, the preceding letter is likely "S", as in "Bill Gates' products. But accents or slang can also lead to final apostrophes ("hangin' tough").

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Tip 3:

Rule out possibilities by checking ALL occurrences of a guess, to see if any produce highly unlikely spellings.

For example, if "W" might be the code for "r" or "v", you could rule out "v" if there was a 2-letter coded word, EW, since there are no 2-letter words ending in "v".

Don't be too quick to completely rule out certain combinations, however, since the text COULD be about vacuums or aardvarks. It could also include slang or regionalisms such as "eh" or "nuthin'.

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Tip 4:

Look for two-letter words. Again, keep in mind that every word has a vowel. Some very common two-letter words are:

  • as, at, am, an - so guess "a" as a FIRST letter. If the "a" is filled in, S, T, M or N are good guesses for the 2nd letter
  • in, is, it, if - again, notice that "I" is a good first letter guess but not 2nd.
  • of, on, or, to, so, do, go, no - so if the same coded letter is in more than one two-letter word, both as a first and second letter, "O" is a good guess.
  • be, me, up, us, my

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Tip 5:

Look for repeated three-letter words. THE and AND are so frequently used that they're a good guess in this case.

THE, THEY, THEM, THEIR, THERE and THESE are also very common words. So if you find THE, look for these other words. Or, if you spot a common three-letter pattern at the beginning of several words, THE is a good guess.

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Tip 6:

Look for double letters, especially in short words. Good guesses for doubles are:

  • ll - as all or tell. L's commonly come at the end of short words.
  • ee or oo - as in see, seem, seen, week, too, good

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Tip 7:

Question marks mark questions, of course, which often begin with words like, "What", "How", "Where", "When" or "Why". W would be a good guess for a first letter and H for the second.

Jokes often begin with questions like, "What did", "What do", "What has", "Why did", or "How do you", which may help you guess two or three-letter second words in a question.

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Tip 8:

Look for abbreviations, for example:

  • i.e. or e.g. which are easily spotted if the cryptogram includes lower case letters.
  • Mr., Mrs. and Dr., all have "r" as the second letter - but not Ms.
  • TWO capitals with no periods may be OK, US, TM (trademark), GM or GE (the companies), or for Christmas content, HO.
  • 3 capitals with no periods could be USA, LOL, IBM, CIA or DNA, or for Halloween content, BOO.

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Tip 9:

The most frequently used letters in the English language are ETAOIN, so if a letter appears very frequently in a cryptogram it's a good guess that it's one of those.

Conversely, if a letter appears only once, it's unlikely to be ETAOIN.

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Tip 10:

Commas can provide a clue to the general structure of the text. In long sentences they may be followed by the conjunctions "and", "but", "or" or "so".

They can also signal that the sentence begins with a subordinating conjunction like "Because", "After", "Although", or " If".

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Tip 11:

Use what you know or can guess about the content of the cryptogram:

  • If it's a joke, look for phrases like "Knock, knock", "What did the", "What do you get", "You may be a", "What's the difference", "How can you tell".
  • If the subject is technology, look for words like "computer", "hardware" or "internet" and proper nouns like "Bill Gates", "Microsoft" or "Apple".
  • If it's for Halloween, you might expect "witch", "ghost", "boo" and, of course, "Halloween". If it's Christmas, be alert for words like "Santa", "reindeer", "tree", and "Xmas".

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