The Scrabble Rules
That Cause Most Arguments

So just what are the Official Scrabble Rules? Let me begin by explaining why this question doesn't have a completely clear answer...

Scrabble Rules

  • The Scrabble rules have been modified several times over the years, so that what you'll see inside the box-lid will depend on the age of your Scrabble set.

  • Scrabble is owned by two companies (Hasbro in North America, and Mattel throughout the rest of the world), and the rules differ regionally.

  • Official Scrabble bodies set up throughout the world to manage clubs and tournaments have their own variations and clarifications of the rules which, in some cases, will differ from those you'll see in the rules distributed with Scrabble sets.

All sound a bit complicated? I guess it is, but that doesn't mean I'll leave you all messed up. The two main points I'd like to get across on this page are that...

1. Many of the commonly debated rules do indeed have satisfactory, widely accepted, answers that we can safely call 'official', and

2. When it comes to the more ambiguous rules, the important thing is that you agree on a clear statement of these rules before you start your game.

On this page I'll help you clarify the rules that are widely accepted as 'official', and provide you with enough information to make a good decision about the more 'debatable' rules. Also, just like the law, it is impossible to write a set of Scrabble Rules that will cater for every possible eventuality. So later, I'll show you some of the detail required in the official rules for international Scrabble tournaments so you can see why.

But first, let's see if we can settle those disputes that happen time and time again...

Which Words are Allowed?

The exact wording of the rules determining which words are permitted in Scrabble varies slightly from source to source, but is always something very similar to the following (from my own very old Scrabble set)...

'Any words found in a standard dictionary are permitted except those capitalized, those designated as foreign words, abbreviations, and words requiring apostrophes or hyphens.'

This is close to the initial wording first used by Alfred Butts, and all modern phrasings of this rule are intended to agree with its intent. The problem of course, is that there is so much ambiguity in this rule.

What do we mean by a 'standard dictionary' for example? And what do we do about inflections of words, which are not usually explicitly listed in dictionaries? That reference to 'foreign words' is also a can of worms. English was built up from foreign languages, and it isn't clear just how foreign a word has to be before it should be disallowed in Scrabble.

The easiest solution is this: get yourself a Scrabble Dictionary. A Scrabble dictionary lists every single word allowed in Scrabble, including inflections and other derivations, and therefore enables you to declare immediately whether a word is in or out without arguments (provided you both agree on one prior to playing!).

Furthermore, Scrabble dictionaries are put together by professional lexicographers (dictionary-makers) in conjunction with Scrabble experts, to make sure that the Scrabble rules are adhered to as carefully and consistently as possible.

If you really insist on using your own favorite English dictionary, I can understand your motivation, but I'm afraid you're not really going to be able to avoid disputes. To help you along, though, I've scrutinized a few of the trickier issues in my Is it a Scrabble Word? page.

Is There a Penalty for Challenging a Valid Word?

Here's a good example where you simply won't get a consistent answer, because different rules are used in different places at different times. The important thing is for you to agree on the rule (usually called the 'Challenge Rule') before you play. To help you, here's some background...

Since 1953, the Scrabble rules have been clear on what happens if you play a false word (assuming the word gets challenged by your opponent, that is!). Namely, 'If the word challenged is unacceptable, the player takes back his[her] tiles and loses his [her] turn'. That much is universally accepted. But what happens if the word turns out to be correct?

Well, initially, no penalty was mentioned in the rules for a player who challenges an opponent's word, should the word turn out to be acceptable. However in 1976 the Challenge Rule changed to this, 'If the word challenged is acceptable, the challenger loses his turn.' This rule has come to be known in Scrabble circles as the 'Double Challenge Rule'. Why? Because during a challenge, both players face a potential penalty.

What is the rule now? Unfortunately, it depends on where you play (and/or where you happened to purchase your Scrabble set). Even in official Scrabble circles, some tournaments (especially in North America) play to the Double Challenge rule, while others don't.

The main argument used against the Double-Challenge Rule is that it encourages players to play false words, because the opponent may be too scared of challenging for fear of losing a turn.

In fact, in many official tournaments nowadays a compromise rule is used in which the challenging player loses 5 points for an incorrect challenge, but does not miss out on a turn. This rule is intended to reduce the harsh sentence, but to provide enough of a disincentive to prevent time-wasting 'frivolous' challenges.

The upshot of all this is that you should agree on your own Challenge Rule before playing a game, and I've given you three commonly used possibilities here...

  • Single Challenge (No penalty for incorrect challenge)
  • Double Challenge (Miss a turn for incorrect challenge)
  • 5-Point Challenge (Lose 5-points for incorrect challenge)

But don't forget that in all of this variation, one thing stays constant. In the event of a successful challenge, the player who plays a false word must take all their tiles back and miss their turn.

What if a Word Covers Two Triple Word Squares?

I've included this question about Scrabble rules here because I have been asked it many times, and it is especially important in competitive Scrabble.

Now because a word covering two triple-word squares has to be at least eight letters long, and you only have seven tiles on your rack, you might think that this situation could never happen. However, it sometimes happens that one or more letters exist on the board in between two triple-word squares, and you are able to play around this letter to cover both triple-word squares. The resulting play is called a triple-triple, and it is the Holy Grail of Scrabble.

Why?

Because the triples multiply (not double) giving you nine times (not six times) the score for your play. Not only that, but if you use up all your letters in the process, you get the usual bonus 50 to boot!

When you hear of ridiculous scores being achieved for a single Scrabble play, it is probably the result of a triple-triple which can score upwards of 300 points!

And don't think you'll need to use up all your tiles to achieve it either. I once scored a very handy 117 points by playing just four of my letters, R-E-E-D, around an existing word PLAY that just happened to be sitting perfectly midway between two triple-word squares, allowing me to make REPLAYED. An easy word, and no need for the 50 point bonus - so watch out for this one!

Got Another Scrabble Rules Dispute?

There are dozens of situations that cause confusion and heated arguments in Scrabble.

I've tried to cover some of the most common rule disputes here, but from time to time I'll clarify others for you in my WordBuffStuff! newsletter...






Scrabble Trademark

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