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The Basic Cryptogram Rules

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - unstarted

A cryptogram is a puzzle where a phrase has been encoded.

You can use a cipher to keep track of your decoding. Each letter is represented by a different letter (or number or symbol).

There is only one possible solution and each letter cannot decode to itself (so H cannot be H).

Ready to learn how to decode a cryptogram puzzle? Let’s get started! We’ll be using the blank example throughout the methods.

Solving Methods

Cryptogram solving methods aren’t meant to be done in any order. Choose whatever you think will help you with a puzzle and keep trying different methods until you’re done!

One-Letter Words

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - one letter words

There are two common one-letter words: “I” and “a”.

There is one more one-letter word, “o” which is rarely used. You’re most likely to see it as “o’clock”. BUT, it could also be used as a stand-alone letter (such as “O Canada” although this is not very likely).

This means, one-letter words are a great place to start when solving a cryptogram.

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • Our example contains three different single letter words (how rare):
    • Y: Y’L, Y, Y
      • A single letter word with a contraction followed by a single letter only has 2 options: “I’m” or “I’d”
      • Now we know that Y is I.
    • J: J’TDJTO
      • We have “o” and “a” left available.
      • Remember up above when I said “o” would most commonly be used in “o’clock”. This looks like a perfect fit for that “o’TDoTO”.
      • Now we know that J is O.
    • W: W
      • Since we solved for I and O, W must be A.
  • Yay! We’ve solved for 3 letters.

Fill in All the Letters

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - filling in all the letters

Every time you solve for a letter, you should fill out all instances of that letter in the puzzle.

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • I’ve marked every “Y” as an “I”, every “J” as an “O”, and every “W” as an “A”.

Note: going forward, I’ll be doing this automatically for the example and won’t mention it as a separate step.

Look for the Obvious

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - look for the obvious

Sometimes you get lucky with a cryptogram and there’s an obvious word that you should fill out. Every time you finish a solving method, be sure to give the puzzle a quick scan and look for these obvious words.

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • When we were filling out the single letters, we chose “o” because of “o’clock”. So let’s add in the c, l, and k.

Note: There’s no “right” order to use the following cryptogram solving methods. Some puzzles might be easiest to start with contractions, others will be easiest to start with two-letter words, others might be best to start with double letters, etc., You just have to try things and see what works.

Two-Letter Words

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - two letter words

There are over 100 two-letter words in English. Luckily, only a few are commonly used. Here are some of the most common two-letter words (organized by vowel use):

  • A – am, an, as, at
  • E – be, he, me, we
  • I – if, in, is, it
  • O – of, on, or, do, go, no, so, to
  • U – up, us
  • Y – by, my

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • I’ve circled all the two-letter words:
    • WM = A?
    • JK = O?
    • HU = ??
    • QU = ??
    • GU = ??
    • MJ = ?O
    • MJ = ?O
    • YM = I?
  • I like to start with the vowels: we know A, I, and O which leaves us E, U, and Y. Our two-letter words that have no known vowel are HU, QU, and GU. The vowels u and y only have two common words each (up, us, by, my) but we have three words in our puzzle so U is most likely going to be E.
  • I could keep looking at 2-letter words, but I’m not going to. If you’re doing a real puzzle, you should! But I want to make sure I can keep teaching you the other methods!

Three-Letter Words

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - three letter words

There are over 15,000 three-letter words in the English language. Obviously we’re not going to be considering all of them.

The most used word in the English language is “the,” which is a three-letter word. Here are the three-letter words that are part of the 100 most commonly used English words:

  • the (1)
  • and (5)
  • for (12)
  • not (13)
  • you (18)
  • but (22)
  • his (23)
  • say (28)
  • her (29)
  • she (30)
  • one (35)
  • all (36)
  • out (43)
  • who (46)
  • get (47)
  • can (53)
  • him (58)
  • see (69)
  • now (73)
  • its (77)
  • use (83)
  • two (84)
  • how (85)
  • our (86)
  • way (90)
  • new (92)
  • any (95)
  • day (98)

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • First things first, what three-letter words are there?
    • IYL = ?i?
    • MIU = ??e (three times)
    • KJM = ?o?
    • RUM = ?e?
    • WKZ = a??
    • ZJK = ?o?
  • I’m going to go ahead and guess that MIU = THE
  • Again, if doing a real puzzle keep looking at three-letter words until you can’t fill out anymore. I’m going to move on for teaching purposes!


How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - apostrophes

Apostrophes are used in two ways: as possessives or contractsions.

A possessive will be a word with an apostrophe and an s. For example, “Bailey’s Puzzles” the ‘s tells us that the puzzles belong to Bailey.

A contraction shortens words by replacing letters with an apostrophe. For example, “I’m” is the contraction for “I am” and “could’ve” is the contraction for “could have.”

Check out this wikipedia article for a more complete list of contractions, but here’s some of the most common to look for:

  • _ ‘ _ = I’m, I’d
  • _ ‘ _ _ = I’ll, I’ve
  • _ _ ‘ _ = it’s, he’s, he’d
  • _ _ ‘ _ _ = it’ll, he’ll, we’ll, we’re, we’ve
  • _ _ _ ‘ _ = she’s, she’d, won’t, don’t, isn’t, can’t
  • _ _ _ ‘ _ _ = you’re, you’ve, she’ll
  • _ _ _ _ ‘ _ = aren’t, didn’t, they’d, wasn’t
  • _ _ _ _ ‘ _ _ = they’re, they’ve, they’ll

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • First, I’m going to find all the apostrophes.
    • Y’L = I’?
    • IU’Z = HE’?
    • GU’VU = ?e’?e
    • ZJK’M = ?o?’t
    • YM’B = IT’?
  • It’s pretty clear that B = S (what else could be it’?)
  • Reminder: I’m not going to do anymore because I want to keep teaching you different methods. If this was a real puzzle, you’d keep looking for more apostrophe letters you could fill out!

Prefixes & Suffixes

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - suffixes and prefixes

The longer the word, the more likely it is to contain a prefix or a suffix.

A prefix is a group of letters placed before the root of a word. A suffix is a group of letters placed after the root of a word.

Common prefixes include:

  • de–
  • en–
  • em–
  • in–
  • im–
  • re–
  • un–
  • dis–
  • mis–
  • pre–
  • over–

Common suffixes include:

  • –ed
  • –en
  • –er
  • –ly
  • –est
  • –ful
  • –ing
  • –ion
  • –ous
  • –able
  • –less
  • –ment
  • –ness

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • This one is a little bit harder and you really have to look for prefixes and suffixes. But once you begin to recognize the patterns, it gets easier.
  • I’ve picked out a suffix. Can you figure it out?
    • BUUYKR = seei??
  • It’s the –ing suffix!
  • Reminder: I’m not looking for anymore!

Letter Patterns

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - letter patterns

You can also look for letter patterns. There are letters that are commonly paired together, like:

  • Q = QU
  • X = EX
  • K = CK, SK, LK, KE
  • H = CH, SH, TH, PH, WH

There are also letters that commonly double up, like:

  • EE
  • DD
  • LL
  • OO
  • TT
  • SS

Any letter can double up, the length and other letters will often help you figure it out. Words like VACUUM, EGG, and AARDVARK.

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • I don’t see any of these in my example puzzle that aren’t already filled out. I’ve circled a few examples (although we filled out those letters earlier).

Letter Frequency

How to Solve a Cryptogram EXAMPLE - letter frequency

In English, some letters are used a lot more than others. For example, an analysis by Cornell demonstrated that the letter E is used in 12.02% of words while the letter Z is used in only 0.07% of words.

Check your puzzle and see if you can add any letters based on their frequency. The most commonly used letters are:

  • E
  • T
  • A
  • O
  • I
  • N
  • S
  • R

Solving the Example Cryptogram:

  • We’ve already solved for 7/8 of the most common letters. Let’s look for places that an “R” would fit.
  • I’ve circled 4 words that I think could use an R:
    • ?ETTE? = –er suffix = ?ETTER (better, wetter, ?) *V=R
    • ?ECA??E = re–prefix = RECA??E (I can’t think of a word that fits…) *Q=R
    • ?E’?E = ‘re contraction = ?E’RE (we’re) *V=R
    • ?EST = REST *Q=R
  • I feel like the V is probably the R, but I’m less certain than I have been so I’m not going to mark it down.

Can You Finish the Example?

Can you finish solving the cryptogram example?

We’ve done a lot of our example. Try to finish it up yourself (click here for a printable version)!

Go back and try the different methods yourself!

Let’s Finish the Example

I’m going to start at the beginning and see if there are any obvious words I can fill out. Then we’ll see from there!

Finish Solving the Cryptogram Part 1

First things first, what letters are unused: B, D, F, J, M, P, Q, R, U, V, W, X, Y, Z

I’m missing one letter from each of my first three words and it’s the same letter: “I’_ _eeting hi_”

I’_ can only be D or M. Both letters are unused. So my first three words has to be one of:

  • I’d deeting hid
  • I’m meeting him

It’s pretty clear to me, the answer is M.

Finish Solving the Cryptogram Part 2

Let’s check the next three blanks:

“I’m meeting him at the cinema at se_en o’clock on mon_a_.”

I’m meeting him at the cinema…
When? at ? o’clock. Is there a time that fits for se_en? Seven!
On Mon_a_? Monday!

Finish Solving the Cryptogram Part 3

Back in the letter frequency section I thought that R might be represented by Q or V. Let’s look at both of those.

I highlighted all the Q’s in Yellow, if I put in R’s this would be my sentence:

  • “He’d rette_ not re late reca__e _e’_e seeing a movie”

I highlighted all the V’s in Green, if I put in R’s this would be my sentence:

  • “He’d _etter not _e late _eca__e _e’re seeing a movie”

The first sentence (replacing Q) just doesn’t make sense. What words will you have with rett_ or reca__e? I’m officially calling this V=R.

Finish Solving the Cryptogram Part 4

Sometimes you miss a filling in a letter. When you notice, just go ahead and put in it.

I noticed that in QUTWABU=_eca__e, I already know that the B is an S but I forgot to mark it down. So, I’ve done that now.

I’ve also noticed (second last line) that I missed filling in two E’s. So I’ve done that, too.

An update/reminder: the only unused letters available now are B, F, J, P, Q, U, W, X, Z.

Finish Solving the Cryptogram Part 5

Looking at those Q’s got me thinking:

  • “He’d _etter not _e late _eca?se” and near the bottom “the _est”
  • _etter could use b, p, w
  • _e could use b, w
  • _est could use b, f, j, p, w, z

B and W are the only options that work for multiple words. Let’s try them in sentences:

  • He’d better not be late beca?se + the best
  • He’d wetter not we late weca?se + the west

It’s certainly Q = B and I think it’s obvious that beca_se = because (or A=U)

Finish Solving the Cryptogram Part 6

There aren’t that many empty spots left. In fact, I only need to figure out 2 more letters

Our available letters are: F J P Q W X Z

  • G = “_e’re” “_ant” “_ant” “?revie_s”

W is the only letter that fits all of the G words. So, G = W.

  • F = “_o_corn” “_revie?s” “_art”

how many kinds of “corn” do you get at the movies? This is clearly F=P for popcorn!

A Solved Cryptogram

We did it!

The answer is:

“I’m meeting him at the cinema at seven o’clock on Monday. He’d better not be late because we’re seeing a movie. I want to get popcorn and I don’t want to miss the previews. It’s the best part!”

Get Cryptogram Puzzles

Now that you know how to solve a cryptogram puzzle, it’s time to grab some puzzles & get solving!

Free Printable Cryptogram Puzzles to download and print today
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Happy Puzzling,

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