You Can Use a Letter Again

I’m going to get it tattooed on the back of my hand.

You can use a letter again.

I’m going to put it on an endless-loop crawler on my laptop screen.

You can use a letter again.

I’m going to cross-stitch it and hang it on the wall straight ahead of me when I look up from the screen/keyboard.

You can use a letter again.

Several months ago I gave in to the no-longer-current craze for online word games: Wordle (in the New York Times) and Canuckle (the Canadian version). For those who haven’t played, the goal is to guess a five-letter word in just six tries. Using simple colour-coding, the game tracks which letters are right but in the wrong position, which letters are right and in the right position, and which letters you’ve already guessed wrongly, to keep you from using them again by mistake. With that much feedback and assistance, how hard can it be?

Not very hard, sometimes; impossible, others.

Of course there are tactics:

  • You can learn to make better initial guesses (think “vowel heavy”).
  • You can learn to make better second guesses (think “gathering information” rather than “trying to solve the puzzle in one step”).
  • You can capitalize on what you know about the letter combinations in short English words:
    • Some are common (think “ch, sh, er, ou, ai, io, et”)
    • Some are possible but rare (think the “kl” in ankle, the “ght” in ought)
    • Some are impossible (think anything but a vowel before “x” or after “ch”)

But the tactics are of less interest to me than my failure modes, which fall into three basic categories: meh, huh, and d’oh.

Meh – Sometimes I don’t know a word, which makes guessing it a bit tricky. More often, I get all but one letter and have more possibilities than guesses left. If “-ears” is correct then, except for what I’ve already guessed, my options include bears, fears, gears, hears, nears, rears, tears, and wears. With way more possibilities than remaining guesses, and no way to reduce the possibilities other than random one-at-a-time guesses, solving the word is just luck.

Huh – Sometimes I fail to see a possibility because I fixate on one way of pronouncing the letters, either by vowel sound (if I started with “wears” then I might not even see “fears, gears, or nears” as words) or I fixate on the number of syllables (I might look only for one-syllable solutions versus two).

D’oh – Sometimes I forget that I can use a correct letter again. My eye just skips over all the letters with colour coding: rightly, the wrongly guessed; but wrongly, the rightly. Two weeks ago I missed “hitch” after getting to “-itch” with two more guesses. I stared and stared at the unused letters at my disposal (which didn’t include “b” or “d”). Fitch? Gitch? Litch? Nitch? Vitch? Zitch? Sigh.

It seems to me that these failure-mode categories apply more broadly to my life. My reaction to a failure depends in part on the failure mode.

When things go wrong because I don’t know something or I chose a plausible possibility that just didn’t work out? Meh. Life happens. What can you do?

When things go wrong because I have a blind spot? Huh. It’s interesting how the mind works (or doesn’t), isn’t it? I can try to do better next time.

But when things go wrong because I fail to apply something that I actually *do* know? Because I go too quickly? D’oh. And arggh. (Insert your own preferred strong rude comment here, and you won’t be far off.) It seems that I can’t do better next time.

You can use a letter again, dummy.

Yeah. I know. Now I just need to remember it–along with all the other things I “know”–and to do it. How hard can it be?

Not very hard, sometimes; impossible, others.

This entry was posted in Language and Communication, Laughing Frequently, Thinking Broadly and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to You Can Use a Letter Again

  1. Tom Watson says:


  2. Isabel Gibson says:

    Tom – 🙂

  3. What splendid, practical advice, hard won on a playing field much like the crosswords that save my sanity at day’s end. The most difficult, for me, have a hidden theme or trick or mind set that eludes me. I am dogged, however. I do not quit just because the answers do not flow. I have the type of eraser that can remove pencil marks repeatedly from soft paper without ripping. Very often, when I pick up the tangle of late-night guesses, my subconscious must have been busy because I will make one of those fresh starts you describe, change a false move, put the eraser to work, and untangle the mess. I feel reassured that the tangle of life may similarly resolve with patience, tenacity, and a good eraser.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I’m a big believer in the power of the subconscious to solve things that *I* cannot. Sometimes the right answer is to walk away for a while. I don’t think Wordle allows me to stash a half-solved puzzle for later re-attack, but it would be a nice feature! And yeah, we could all use a decent eraser.

  4. barbara carlson says:

    I don’t do puzzles of any kind. BUT the other day I saw a headline on one of the many email pleads for money . It said, “Save the VOWLES.” then I looked again– WOLVES.
    Whew, I thought.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Hahaha – that’s a fascinating swap. I thought it was heading to something about spelling (Prevent Vowle Involvement in Misspelling?), but wolves? I support vowels and wolves, so I’m good no matter how I read it.

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