Wordle: How to Play (and Win) Like a LinguistJanuary 20, 20224 min read
Wordle. If you haven’t heard of it, maybe you’re on vacation, on a remote island, with no WiFi. If you have, maybe you’ve seen friends post their results to Twitter or Facebook and wondered what it was about? Maybe you heard about the game from reading the news. Either way, you’re probably in deep.
But for those of us who are unfamiliar, what is the game and how does it work? Why is it just so popular? And most importantly, how do you win? In order to answer these questions and more, we spoke with linguist Grant Berry, PhD.
“I think word games have to some degree always been popular (think of Scrabble or the New York Times crossword, for example), and a big reason for that is that every human being has a lifetime of experience with language—it’s familiar ground for all of us who speak a given language,” Dr. Berry says. The appeal of the game, then, makes a lot of sense. It’s not a new phenomenon, rather, it’s a reimagining of an established pastime.
And Wordle is delightfully simple; each player is tasked with guessing a five-letter word in six tries. The tiles turn gray to show when letters are not in the word, yellow when letters are in the word but in the wrong position, and green when letters are in the word and in the correct position.
“To start, you need to find a five-letter word that maximizes the likelihood that you’ll find at least one of the letters in the target word,” Berry says. “I parsed a word list from powerlanguage’s GitHub page (the person who created Wordle), and the five most frequent letters in that list are A (7,646), E (7,563), S (6,612), O (5,007), and R (4,937). There is one word in English that contains all of these: SOARE (a young hawk). This word is not very common, and it’s very unlikely to be the correct word, but it should give you a few pieces of the puzzle. Odds are the target word is fairly common, so it’s unlikely to have the least common letters: W V Z X J or Q.”
Okay, so you should now have one or two correct letters. If not, Berry recommends, “guessing a word (with the other two vowels) that doesn’t contain any letters we’ve tried yet. Some options are CUMIN, UNTIL, TULIP, or INPUT. After this, start thinking about common sequences of letters in English using the letters you’ve uncovered. “The ten most common consonant clusters in the dataset were ST, CH, TS, SH, TH, NG, NT, NS, LL, and LY. Alternatively, you could appeal to the tendency in English syllable structure to favor what’s called sonority sequencing.”
For those non-linguists out there, sonority sequencing means, “you’re more likely to see harder, obstruent sounds like P T C D B G followed by more resonant or continuant sounds like R L N H S at the beginning of syllables (i.e., before a vowel) and the opposite order at the end of syllables (i.e., after a vowel). For example, DRINK follows this principle.”
And a helpful tip? “If you have an S in the word and not much other information besides vowels, your best bet is to put it at the beginning of the word or at the very end,” Berry says. “The S sound is the only one in English that can form consonant clusters with more than two distinct sounds (e.g., STRAP); it’s also commonly found at the end of words in plurals.”
Congratulations, you’re on a roll! “From this point, move forward without forgetting what you’ve learned so far, meaning that if a letter is gray from a previous guess, do not use it in another guess. Similarly, if a letter was in yellow in a previous guess, use it in a different position. If the new position is wrong, choose a third position that’s different from the previous two. This way you aren’t throwing away the useful positional information from your previous failed guesses.” And there you go. With some expert tips and a bit of calculated guessing, you uncovered the word of the day!
Now that we know what Wordle is and how to win, we talked with Dr. Berry about the puzzle’s virality. “The short duration of the game and its simplicity make it easily shareable, and the fact that there’s only one word per day makes it easy for a large group of people to have common ground and a central topic of discussion. Those two things combined are the recipe for a viral phenomenon.”
Ever finish someone’s sentence? Wordle taps into that experience and in a sense replicates it. “There’s strong evidence to suggest that human beings are capable of tracking distributions of words and sounds, using them to help predict what’s coming next when reading or listening,” Berry says. “In a sense, then, this game is asking players to do what they’ve always done: use what you know about the structure of words in English alongside feedback you get to come up with the appropriate target.”
How many tries did it take you to uncover the word of the day? With Dr. Berry’s help, you probably have a score worth bragging about.
To speak with Dr. Berry, email email@example.com.