Solving Anagrams
In 3 Lessons

Solving anagrams is a critical skill in Scrabble, Cryptic Crosswords, Text Twist, and an endless list of other word games and puzzles. It is also a lot of fun.

Whatever your particular motive for anagram-solving, this page should help. What I'm going to do here is describe three extremely useful techniques to improve your ability to unscramble anagrams quickly. These techniques were largely developed by expert Scrabble players, however I find the skills invaluable no matter what the anagramming context.

Solving Anagrams - Lesson 1

Prefixes and Suffixes

Many words contain a common prefix or suffix. Given a jumbled set of letters, you can often make your job much easier by first removing two or more letters that form a possible prefix or suffix, and then anagramming the remaining set of letters.

Here's an example...

P-D-E-D-U-E-N

First, let's look for a common prefix, and we'll put it to one side. The first one that jumps out might be UN, giving us...

U-N + P-D-E-D-E

Do the letters PDEDE make a valid UN- word? None I can think of. Are there any other plausible prefixes here? Sure. Let's try UP...

U-P + D-E-D-E-N

Aha! DEDEN makes ENDED, giving...

UPENDED

See what I mean? By locating a common prefix we have reduced the difficult task of anagramming seven letters, to the easier task of anagramming five letters.

Here's another example...

D-U-A-T-H-O-N

Again, let's take out UN...

U-N + D-A-T-H-O

Hmmm... Nothing doing here. What about OUT...

O-U-T + D-A-H-N

OUT-HAND is obvious, but it isn't a word. Wait! What about...

HANDOUT

Bingo! Literally.

Just to see that you've got the idea, here's a harder one for you to practice. I'll put a spoiler near the bottom of the page for you...

N-O-F-L-O-U-S-P

Now, this is certainly a great technique for solving anagrams, but it isn't fool-proof. Why? Because lots of words, like EROTICA, for example, don't contain a common prefix or suffix. That's why we can't stop here...

Solving Anagrams - Lesson 2

Alphagrams

Now here's a system that diehard Scrabble experts use in solving anagrams.

The alphagram of a word is simply a list of the word's letters in alphabetical order. Take the word WORDPLAY, for example. Listing the letters of this word in alphabetical order gives...

A-D-L-O-P-R-W-Y

So we call ADLOPRWY the alphagram of WORDPLAY. Pretty easy huh? But what's the point?

The point is this: alphagrams enable you to solve an anagram using your memory, rather than actually unscrambling letters. Let me give you an example...

Suppose you are trying to unscramble the letters UNMBAES. Now there are zillions of ways these letters might turn up in a word game: UNMBAES, BUMANES, NUMBESA, and so on. You can't possibly memorize every single one of these combinations.

But suppose you just memorize one of these zillions of patterns? Which one? The alphagram of course: ABEMNSU.

More to the point, suppose you memorize the rule...

ABEMNSU => SUNBEAM

Then, as soon as you are faced with the letters UNMBAES, you immediately rearrange them to form the alphagram ABEMNSU, and rely on your memory to return the solution of SUNBEAM.

Sound easy? It isn't! But...

The value of the method does not lie in the fact that it is easy, but rather that it reduces creative guesswork (that is, genuine anagramming) to mechanical work (memorized anagramming).

Lots of it, to be sure, but mechanical nonetheless. And if it's mechanical, then it's doable.

I can prove it's doable, because there are people out there in the word game community who can do this in their sleep. You can give one of these anagram experts just about any set of scrambled letters under nine letters or so in length, and they can find the anagram almost every time!

And so will you. Provided you do these two things...

  • Create a list of alphagrams of all the words you would like to be able to anagram
  • Memorize this list by going over and over and over it again. Use flash cards if you find them helpful (alphagram on one side - answer on the other)

After a lot of practice, it will become second nature to you. Given the letters GANTTASE, you will form the alphagram AAEGNSTT, and this will trigger your brain to recall the flash card on which you have the rule...

AAEGNSTT => STAGNATE

Given the power of this method, you might think that our work here is done. Not quite. There is one more thing we need to take care of...

Solving Anagrams - Lesson 3

Stories & Pictures

Something I haven't talked about yet is the possibility that a set of letters might have more than one anagram. When this happens, stories and pictures can be used to basically glue the answers together. That way, you only need to find one of the solutions, and the others will tag along.

TIP — Never underestimate the power of pictures in improving your recall. US memory champion Ron White achieves his freakish recall ability with a picture-based memory system.
For example, the letters A-C-D-E-H-I-N have two solutions: CHAINED and ECHIDNA. These answers can be glued together by simply imagining an ECHIDNA CHAINED to a lamppost. That way, once you've found the easier solution, CHAINED, the much trickier anagram will follow suit.

Likewise, TOENAIL is tricky to find from A-E-I-L-N-O-T, but it is an anagram of the easier-to-find ELATION, which has the common -ION ending. So just imagine the ELATION you would feel if somebody pulled out your TOENAIL with a set of pliers! Sarcasm is fine in this game.

To finish off, I'll let you practice your final technique for solving anagrams by building a mental image around the anagram triplet...

BEDROOM - BOREDOM - BROOMED


And finally... If you enjoy reading articles like this about anagrams, word puzzles and games, you'll find lots of tasty morsels in Word Buff Stuff!, the free word games newsletter I distribute with this website. Just pop your email address and name in the box below, and I'll send you every issue from now on!






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And now here's the spoiler for the anagram I gave you earlier...

N-O-F-L-O-U-S-P => SPOONFUL

Didn't spot the suffix -FUL? Don't worry. You will next time ;-)

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