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Friday, May 24, 2024

The Best Starting Words to Win at Wordle

Wordle, the daily word guessing game, is taking Twitter, the world, and my relationship by storm.

If you haven’t heard of it—how?—the rules are simple. Every day there’s a new five-letter word (a Wordle.) You get six attempts to guess it, and after each one the color of the tiles change to tell you whether a letter was in the word and in the right place (green), in the word but not in the right place (yellow), or not in the word (gray.)

These limitations are what make Wordle so fun. Everyone in the world (and, in particular, in my house) is attempting to guess the same word in the fewest number of guesses. What’s clever is you can share your progress after you succeed—but all the letters are disguised as colored blocks. So you can gloat without giving anything away.

But never let it be said there’s a game that can’t be beaten (or, according to my girlfriend, ruined) with a bit of research, analysis, and time. So, if you’ve ever wondered what the best strategy is for winning at Wordle, let’s break it down.

Letter Distribution in the English Language

Letter frequency analysis is the study of how often and where letters occur in words. It’s pretty foundational to cryptography, because if you have to decode a secret message like we’re kind of doing with Wordle, it’s useful to know that you are more likely to see an E than a Q.

While exact letter frequency distribution changes based on the source text, the most common letters don’t really change.

Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, used the data from Google Books to come up with this list of the top 12 most common letters in the English language:

E (in 12.49 percent of words)T (9.28 percent )A (8.04 percent)O (7.64 percent)I (7.57 percent)N (7.23 percent)S (6.51 percent)R (6.28 percent)H (5.05 percent)L (4.07 percent)D (3.82 percent)C (3.34 percent)

There’s one issue with this list for us Wordlers, though. It’s based on a natural-language source text, which means the word the kind of messes things up for us. The is by far the most common word in the English language, representing 7.14 percent of all words in the Google Books source text, followed by of (4.16 percent), and (3.04 percent), and to (2.6 percent). This means the position of T and H in the list are higher than they should be.

Another option is to just look at the distribution of letters in dictionary words. An analysis of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th Edition, 1995) found the 12 most common letters were:

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E (in 11.16 percent of words)A (8.45 percent)R (7.58 percent)I (7.54 percent)O (7.16 percent)T (6.95 percent)N (6.65 percent)S (5.74 percent)L (5.49 percent)C (4.54 percent)U (3.63 percent)D (3.38 percent)

While this list isn’t perfect either, since it uses an almost-20-year-old British English dictionary as its source, between the two we can use our judgment and creativity to come up with great Wordle starting words.

The Best Words to Start With

There are a couple of things we have to keep in mind when coming up with our Wordle starting words:

Each guess had to be an actual five-letter word.Each guess does not have to include letters that you know are in the Wordle.Overall letter frequency doesn’t mean each letter is likely to occur in the same words. Neither ETAOI or EARIO are words, despite being the most common letters on each list in descending frequency order.This is a game and meant to be fun.

So, the first word has to be five letters, and we want it to pull from the most common, say, eight letters. That means we’re working from E, T, A, O, I, N, S, and R (top eight are actually the same on both lists.)

Some good options are:

NOTESRESINTARESSENOR

But you should feel free to come up with your own.

Then for the second guess, we want to tick off any remaining letters in the top 10 (with a bit of judgment as to what they are). This means a few good options are:

If you start with NOTES, ACRIDIf you start with RESIN, LOATHIf you start with TARES, CHINOIf you start with SENOR, DUCAT

Again, you should make your own here. I’d suggest using a site like Anagram Scramble to help. (I couldn’t have written this article without it.)

After those two guesses, you should have at least a few letters and be ready to start guessing based on the actual Wordle—or, as my girlfriend calls it, “playing properly.”

If This Makes It Too Easy: Hard Mode

A word of warning. If playing like this takes the fun out of things (and reliably being able to guess most words by your fourth guess can, I suppose), you should try Hard Mode.

Tap the Settings icon and then enable Hard Mode. This forces you to use any revealed letters in your subsequent guesses.

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Obviously, you should still start with a sensible first guess. But Hard Mode stops you from playing letter frequency words the whole way down.

Other Wordle Tips and Tricks

Understanding letter frequencies helps a lot, but there are a few other things you should bear in mind:

Despite being hosted on a UK domain, Wordle is based on American English. If you live in Ireland (like I do), this means that six-letter-words that end in -OUR can crop up as five-letter-words that end in -OR.Letters can, and often do, appear twice in words.From this New York Times article, we know that developer Josh Wardle used words his wife recognized to create the list. Each one will only appear once, but you should know it.Remember all the tips from Scrabble, like Q's need U's, and Z's are uncommon. As fun as Wordle is, it’s just another word game and all the usual bits of advice apply.


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