24a. Playtime: Phonotactics VI: Phonotactic Games

     Probably one of the best – or at least most fun – ways to really get a feel for English phonotactic patterns is through word games. Language is something we all use constantly, and we all love to play with it. Here is a selection of English phonotactic games you can learn and play over the Internet; some are available as freeware that you can download and play offline. Most started out as pencil-and-paper or board games, and you can of course still play them the traditional way too!

Free Dictionary

     You can warm up with some easy word games from Free Dictionary:



     This is often one of the first word guessing games an English-speaking child learns to play. You are given a number of blanks, each representing one letter of a word. You simply guess letters, one at a time. If you guess a letter that is found in the word, the letter is filled into the correct blank. If you guess wrong, one line is added to a picture of a stick figure being hanged on a gallows. The object of the game is to guess all the letters of the word before your man is hanged! There are many online 'hangman' games available for you to choose from. Try a couple out and play the one(s) that suit you best.

Here's a very easy children's version to start with:


     Here's a politically correct computer "hangperson":


    This site allows you to choose the level of difficulty you prefer:


    This one has rather unusual words; you may want to 'cheat' with the pattern match tools from the preceding pages. This will give you practice in how to use them.


       You can use Google to find more versions of "Hangman".

      Hangman was made into an extremely popular television game show in the US called "Wheel of Fortune". Click on the link to play an online version. Spin the wheel to determine how much 'money' you'll win per letter if you guess a correct letter, then guess a consonant. If you want to guess a vowel, you have to 'buy' it with some of your winnings. (Think about why they added this rule.) In contrast to the TV version, you must guess all the letters, and cannot solve the puzzle directly. Be careful – this can be addictive!

     Think for a minute about some of the strategies you use to play 'Hangman' type games, such as knowledge about letter and phoneme frequencies; clues from the number of letters in the word, and from the position of each letter; knowledge of phonotactics, i.e. which sounds may follow each other; also, high-frequency function words in phrases, like the and and, are often quite easy to guess. You must of course also use your common-sense knowledge of the world.

     On to the next game.


     In this game you are given a grid of randomly generated letters. Your object is to connect adjacent letters to form as many words as possible in the allotted time. Each word must be at least four letters in length. This game tests your ability to recognize potential and actual words.


     Here is a game called "Eight Letters in Search of a Word". Form as many words as you can of three letters or more during the time allotted, trying extra hard to use all eight to form a single word. You will move to the next level if you do well. Compare your score with others when you're done, if you're feeling competitive!


    This game is better known as "Boggle". Here is an online version:


     Below is a link to a game called "Bookworm" that is really a combination of "Boggle" and "Tetris". It's offered by a commercial site (i.e. they want to sell you downloads), but you can try it online for free. It features different levels of difficulty and bonus tiles. Try to form words with the burning tiles first — if they fall to the bottom, it's "Game over!"


     And here is the place to cheat when playing Boggle–the Boggle/Wordracer solver! Another useful phonotactic tool, though it does pretty much the same thing that the other tools do (links below).



     This is a classic funny-page game.You must unscramble four words, then arrange the circled letters in your answers into a word or words to answer a riddle suggested by a captioned cartoon. A timer will clock how fast you solve the whole puzzle. The scrambled word may mislead you by suggesting a 'dead end' phonotactic pattern, e.g. when you see goynex you may think it is a word that starts with ex-, or ends with -gony like agony, while the answer is a quite common word with a very different structure: oxygen. This game can be addictive – fortunately only one puzzle is available per day (though you can also play a few days' worth of archived puzzles!). Hints offered if you get too frustrated! This one will give you lots of practical experience with English phonotactics!


     A much simpler version is available on the Dictionary.com site — you will be given a series of scrambled words to unscramble:



     From the site: Clockwords is a hectic word game set in Victorian London. You are a genius inventor who discovers plans for a mysterious machine that runs on the power of language. Then your lab is infiltrated by mechanical insects that have come to steal your secrets!
You must think and type quickly to fend off the invaders. To destroy the bugs, you need to collect powerful letters. Some letters can be combined to increase their power. (Thanks to Tony Tsou for this link - and he warns that this games is highly addictive!)


Word Ladders

    This game was invented by Lewis Carroll (his real name was Charles L. Dodgson), author of Alice in Wonderland. Dodgson originally called this game "Doublets", but it is also known as "Laddergrams", "Stepwords", "Word Chains", "Transitions", "Transformations", and 'Trickledowns'. In this game you change one word into a very different-looking word by replacing just one letter in the first word at a time. At each step the letter change must result in a real English word. Here are two simple examples, going from CAT to MEN and RED to SIT:


     Here are some easy "Word Ladder" games from Reader's Digest to get you started:


  Here are some more "Word Ladder" puzzles, with solutions:


   You can find more Word Ladders as well as a large selection of other word games on this page:


Word P.I.

     Here's a more difficult game: you have to guess the five-letter word the computer has 'in mind'. No letter may be repeated. The computer will give you a '0' for every letter you guess right, and an 'X' if you guess the correct letter and have it in the correct place–but it won't tell you which letter(s)! If you get no letters right, a '-' will be displayed. This is tough–but not impossible, and it's fun! (I got 'quota' in 14 guesses! Writing down the letters you're sure the word does and doesn't have as you go along will save guesses.)


Fill-in-the blanks Crossword Puzzles

     This page gives you partially-completed crossword puzzles that become increasingly difficult to solve. There are no clues to meanings; you just guess what the words could be based on the letters and number of spaces given on the page
. Click on a space if you think you've guessed the correct letter that should go in it, then click on the letter you've guessed from the choices to the right. The letter will appear both in the space you clicked and also in all the other spaces in the puzzle where it is used, whether your answer is right or wrong. If you later find a mistake, you can correct it. When you choose the last letter used in the puzzle correctly, you win, and can go on to another, slightly more difficult puzzle. The first puzzles are not too difficult, the later ones are pretty hard! But it's fun. And it will push your knowledge of English phonotactics to the limit!


If you have a lot of spare time to blow, this site has a lot of other interesting games as well!


     This is the classic crossword board game. Start by reading over the official rules, so you know how to play:


     When you're ready, you can play the online Scrabble knock-off, written by programmers in India, called "Lexulous" (formerly "Scrabulous"). You do need to register to use the site, but it is safe — and it's addictive. See if you can beat the "robot" at the solitaire version. See the site for other playing options, e.g. playing with others online (some are real experts — be ready!):


Try clicking "F11" before opening the page to get a "full screen" so you can see everything on the game board at once.

    Here is a free downloadable computer Scrabble. You can play with a partner, or against the computer, and you can adjust the playing difficulty level. Besides English, you can also play in German, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Swedish if you download the extra language packs. Here's the download page (beware of sleezy popup ads!):


     In theory, it's against the rules to check a dictionary before putting down a word in Scrabble, but one of the big benefits of the game, when you're not playing competitively, is the sheer thrill of learning new words. The following tools will help you do just that by suggesting words that use as many of the letters on your rack as possible.

     Andy's anagram solver:


     This is good, and easy to use; the one drawback for Scrabble players is that it only gives you words that use up all the letters you input. So you may have to let it form more than one word to get more choices.

     The following freeware application (i.e. you need to download it to your pc) overcomes this problem by also giving you words that don't use up all your letters. It's very useful for Scrabble players!

    Anagram Artist, by Mike Keith:


Go through the PowerPoint tutorial before downloading it.

     Also extremely useful for any kind of word work is the OneLook online dictionary. It provides links to the word you want in all the online dictionaries it can find that have the word. You can also use a wildcard, e.g. *nd means "any word that ends with -nd"; ?er? means "all four-letter words that start and end with any letter and have "-er- in the middle". Remember that ? represents a single letter and * represents an unlimited number of letters. You can narrow your search to "Common words only"; otherwise you will get a lot of proper nouns and acronyms, neither of which is allowed in Scrabble.


     This resource is so useful it's a good idea to add a link to it in your browser toolbar, so you can get there with a single click.

     Free Dictionary has some word puzzle solving tools here.

     Here are further Scrabble resources and puzzle-solving tools if you need more help.

    If you find yourself still craving for more, there are lots more fun and instructive phonotactic word games to explore, many online – do a Google search of 'word games' and see what you come up with! Or go on to the next page, which mixes the rather straightlaced issue of phonetic timing with some musical silliness!

Next: Playtime: Phonotactics VII: Phonetic timing and a parody of "That's Amore"

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