Love Letters 2: How to make More of Less

by Chris Hancock

Do you want to be able to turn DIRT into GOLD? Or go from POOR to RICH? Maybe you want to turn BLACK into WHITE? Or show how MAN can evolve from APE? Then what you need, my friends, is a “Word Ladder”.

A Word Ladder puzzle begins with two words of the same length. The puzzle is solved by finding a sequence of other words to link the two, in which every pair of adjacent words differ by just one letter. As I have just ably demonstrated, this is a lot harder to describe in words than to show by an example. So here’s an example. It is possible to go from LESS to MORE as follows:


Lewis Carroll, the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass”, claimed to have invented the game on Christmas Day in 1877. He described how it came about in a letter printed in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879:

Just a year ago last Christmas, two young ladies – smarting under that sorest scourge of feminine humanity, the having ‘nothing to do’ – besought me to send them ‘some riddles.’ But riddles I had none at hand, and therefore set myself to devise some other form of verbal torture which should serve the same purpose. The result of my meditations was a new kind of Puzzle – new at least to me – which, now that it has been fairly tested by a year’s experience, and commended by many friends.

Carroll devised and published a number of puzzles and solutions in the magazine, and these were subsequently released as a book. Carroll, having initially called the puzzles “Word-Links”, was by this stage calling them “Doublets”. Strangely, he never used the name “Word Ladders” but that seems to be the one that has stuck. The book is “inscribed to Julia and Ethel” so it’s a reasonable assumption that these were the “two young ladies” that inspired him. Incidentally, I tried to make a Word Ladder between JULIA and ETHEL – you won’t be surprised to find out that I failed dismally.


Right from the beginning, Carroll seems to have realised that the Start and Target words should be related in some way. In the very first set of Word Ladders published, he asks the reader to “Drive PIG into STY” and “Make WHEAT into BREAD” (For these and the ladder puzzles mentioned above, I will show solutions at the end of the article).

Let’s take a look at the individual steps (or rungs) that make up the ladder. Clearly some words are going to be better than others as they give you more options. So which words allow the most changes? For four-letter words, the most flexible word seems to be WARE, which can be transformed into any of the following words:


What about words that you can’t transform at all? It depends on how big your dictionary is, but for three-letter words some examples are EBB, EMU, GNU and USE. For four-letter words, the only familiar word (and then only familiar to crossword solvers) is ECRU, “The yellowish-brown colour of unbleached linen”.

Some words allow all of their letters to be changed. As we have already seen, our old friend WARE can be transformed into BARE, WERE, WADE and WARD. A good five-letter example would be SHORE, which can be transformed into CHORE, STORE, SHARE, SHONE and SHORT.

A “perfect” ladder is one where every letter is changed, with each position being changed only once. Here’s a six-letter example:


A while ago I wrote a piece about Pangrams. You might even have read it (and if not, why not?) Anyway, you can find it here. For those of you not familiar with a Pangram, it is “a sentence constructed using every letter of the alphabet at least once”. Well it turns out that there is something called a “Pangrammatic Word Ladder”. It’s a word ladder where every letter of the alphabet is changed once. Here, if you’re willing to accept one or two fairly obscure words (and a rude one), is an example:


Notice that the last word joins to the first – clever, eh?

While Lewis Carroll had to make do without computers, we are under no such constraint. With access to a database of valid words it is possible to create a program to solve any Word Ladder (or show that it cannot be solved). There is an excellent online version here. I confess to some unease about mentioning that. Have I let the genie out of the bottle and put temptation to “cheat” in your way? Oh, well… too late now.

Enough about someone else’s web sites. This web site is called That Word Site – three words of equal length. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Probably not. You’re glancing at your watch and thinking “Is he nearly finished?” I’m thinking “Can I create a word ladder from THAT to WORD to SITE?” Here’s my first attempt:




I reckon I could have done better than that with a bit of time and effort. And sure enough, the online solver’s attempt (sticking to familiar words) beats me handsomely on the second part:




So, is that the shortest solution? Get to it, wordnerds…








Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.


273 Responses to “Love Letters 2: How to make More of Less”

  1. Thanks for easing my feminine scourge :)

  2. These are wonderful! But who called them word ladders then?

    • They’re normally shown vertically with the Start word at the top and the Target word at the bottom. So I think the solution grid looks a bit like a ladder that you descend, Dianne, with each word a “rung”..

  3. Why Chris Hancock, another delight! Please keep writing us love letters 😉

  4. These are awesome, way cooler than crosswords.

    • Well, I’m a fan of crosswords too, Gerda, so I won’t go that far. But they are good fun and the fact that there can be more than one solution makes them interesting.

  5. As always, your linguistic dexterity thrils.

  6. You always seem to know just what I need!

  7. amazeballs, about to set off on a roadtrip now I guess we’ll be playing with these

  8. Most of your egs are quite short, are longer ones harder? Thanks for the column.

    • It’s a good question, Dave. There’s an article on the internet where I guy found two words that could be connected via a Word Ladder, but it couldn’t be shortened to less than 40-odd rungs. But it’s a bit technical and depends very much on the dictionary being used. Thanks!

  9. Haha, I love the idea of them containing a joke, like less and more :)

    • Yes! As I say in the article I was amazed that Carroll wasn’t just content to have invented the game, but saw that related Start and Target words worked even better, Lucille. And if they can be made to sound like normal phrases – “getting MORE from LESS” – better still!

  10. Love the one that goes round and round, quite hypnotic.

  11. Why word ladders though, links seems much nicer.

    • As I mentioned to Dianne above, they’re normally shown vertically with the Start word at the top and the Target word at the bottom. So I think the solution grid looks a bit like a ladder that you descend, with each word a “rung”.

  12. Hmm…the fact that you’ve challenged us means there must be a simpler way…but I can’t see it!

  13. I’m fascinated by the untranslatable words.They seem linguistic oddities in other ways too. Thank you!

    • Yes, I guess that’s the key, Lynne. If they looked like “normal” words, there would be bound to be a word they could transform into. It surprised me how few untranslatable words there were. Thanks!

  14. These could be like wordnerd mantras. Epic.

  15. Your fascination with words fascinates me, for which I thank you :-)

  16. Oh what fun you always bring to my days!

  17. that chat chit crit cait cart care ware ward word…I don’t even know if all of those are words. Think I’ll leave the wordnerding to you and just do the admiring!

  18. how lovely that a little parlour game can still entertain us now! lol

  19. So ward is jolly versatile…I wonder if you could make WARD off EVIL? :-)

  20. I’m going to spend the day trying to turn words into other words now. So nothing’s changed then :-). thanks!

  21. Ooh these’d be fun for quizzes. Nice!

  22. I am rather obsessed with doing these with my fridge magnets. Is that a sad thing to confess?

  23. I keep thinking “OH GOD I’LL NEVER MAKE IT WORK” and then suddenly it all becomes clear. Fab! Thanks!!

  24. Lots of fun, woke my brain up for a change, instead of the usual things I read online which dull me into stupor.

  25. Is there meant to be a “right answer”, or is the shortest always the best? Intriguing stuff.

  26. Thanks for my dose of hancock xx

  27. I keep waiting for you to run out of wordnerdy topics. I hope you never do!

  28. Lovely, love your old pieces too.

  29. Ah yes, good old ecru. Or as I call it baby puke.

  30. Those goshdarned bored ladies, always desperately begging men to dream up schemes to keep them amused…like you keep us amused 😉

  31. Oh great stuff, these are fun. I can kinda visualise the letters cycling around in my head.

  32. Chris chais chaos chars chaps claps class

  33. Thoroughly good read as always wordnerd warrior.

  34. You’re like a word magician, and I always think I can follow the queen, but you still surprise me.

  35. Vanity Fair is HOW OLD? OMG!

  36. I’m going to send emails to everyone I know saying things like “Can you make JOSHY HAPPY?” and send them here.

  37. I like to think that in that pic Lewis Carroll is busy deviously devising a devillish doublet.

  38. Using an online tool seems to rather defeat the purpose of the whole thing, surely? Lovely, Chris, thank you.

    • I know what you mean, Annie. I did have mixed feelings. But you could all have googled “Word Ladder solvers” yourselves. I say it’s a tool for allowing you to set Word Ladder puzzles for others, when you haven’t got time to find a solution yourself.

  39. The fact that there are these pangrammatic ladders, and “perfect” ladders makes me think that some people take the fun of words rather too seriously. Happily you just expose the fun bits to us!

  40. Is there a special names for ones that go round in circles? They can’t really be ladders, can they, more like wheels!

  41. Now I can’t wait for the next installment! More wordplay please!

  42. I’ve often seen these with a middle word that you need to “hit”, kind of like you’ve set up with That Word Site – going from that to site would be much quicker of course. I like the added challenge.

  43. Aww, is “shit” too rude for you :-) just kidding, thanks as always Mr H.

  44. Seems they’re also more fun when you’re not just switching vowels for vowels and consonants for consonants. Lovely stuff Chris!

  45. Tried the challenge someone set on your online tool, it says “Evil is either not in the dictionary or cannot be transformed into any other word” so that’s another four letter one for your list.

    • Ooh! Good point, Gabriella. I think it depends on what word set is used. “Eval” is an obscure word meaning “Relating to time or duration”. Obviously too obscure for the word set used by that online tool. Well spotted! :-)

  46. I’ve never understood all these online tools that do everything for you. Your pangram helper was different – a helper, not a doer.

    That said, thanks for your usual excellence :-)

    • Yes, fair point, Lauren. I suppose you could cover the screen with something so you can only see the first word below the Start word. Think of it as a hint to get you started. Thanks!

  47. I think “fairly obscure” must be code for “you’ll need a dictionary” LOL

  48. Always delightful dear chris hancock xx

  49. “exposing the fun bits to us” as another commentor suggested sounds like something other than a word site ;-). Thanks for the words!

  50. You make the Most of everything 😀

  51. You’re simply the best x

  52. Amazing talent for making potentially dull topics interesting. You’re one of the few writers I read online and never get distracted away before I’ve finished all the way through.

  53. Such fun, thanks!

  54. I am AWFUL at these. I feel like a wordnerd failure. When I can see all the bits I can admire them, but I can never do any. I recently couldn’t figure out one intended for fifth graders :-(

  55. fabulous Chris, fabulous

  56. Finally, a wordnerd pick up trick. Go into bars and promise to be able to turn dirt into gold in five minutes. I’m sure I’ll…erm… 😉

  57. Did you always know you were destined to write love letters to an adoring public? So glad you found your calling!

    • Well, I write Love Letters because I love letters, Melanie. Especially when they’re formed into words. I’m just happy I’ve found people who love them as much as I do :-)

  58. Do people in other languages do these, or is it a uniquely English pasttime?

    • Great question, Vinnie! There’s no reason why there can’t be foreign language Word Ladders, but I can’t find an example of one. It may be due to the fact that English has a much larger word count than most languages. But there’s a challenge for people reading this comment.

  59. Word ladders sounds far more schooly than wordlinks or doublets. I can just imagine someone saying “anyone for doublets”?

  60. Oooo scrummy!

  61. Oh I love these! And you! And this site!

  62. That Carroll was a bright chap. So are you :-)

  63. *hugs self with glee* the new Hancock is here! And he has more toys for us!

  64. OMFG why did no one tell me about this site? You’re STUPENDOUS.

  65. Well thank Julia, Ethel, Lewis and Chris for my evening’s entertainment!

  66. Can I borrow a word ladder, need to change my lightbulb.

  67. always a pleasure to share words with you Chris

  68. I’ve always considered words good friends. You know sometimes when you catch a glimpse of someone from a new angle and see them in a whole new light? You do that for me with words.

  69. lovely lovely lovely stuff

  70. So very clever, as you say, to have the connection between the words thematically or conceptually. NICE.

  71. Awesome stuff Chris – a new game to play!

  72. CHRIS CHAIS CHAOS CHAPS CLAPS CLASS CRASS…nah, kidding, definitely class not crass!

  73. Always smilemaking, lovely Chris Hancock. x

  74. Lovely stuff, I do appreciate your talent in highlighting wordnerd concerns :-)

  75. Ooh Mr Hancock, you’re going to show us the fun bits? Can I get my camera? 😀

  76. What a wealth of wonder, all those links, all your genius, I’m so thrilled to have found you.

  77. Clever bugger that Carrol, but cleverer you for finding it and making it fun for us :-)

  78. Can you make SUZE into a NERD? You just did!

  79. Never knew words could take me from poor to rich :-) and what delightful words too, they make us all richer.

  80. Mr Hancock sir, you do delight and inspire.

  81. May your pen be always filled with words young man, to continue to share with us.

  82. What a vivid picture of women of leisure lounging about demanding to be entertained. That kind of thing never happens these days. Now: WHEN’S THE NEXT COLUMN??? :-)

  83. LOVE LIVE LINE LIFE WIFE – what my husband engraved on my engagement ring 😉

  84. Really enjoyed this, and your previous works, thank you.

  85. Awesome stuff, fun and, you know, clever.

  86. But men ARE apes :-)

  87. Hey Chris

    Who can I speak to about potentially using an article of yours for a community publication?


  88. One can always be sure of a good time with you Chris, and a great ending.

  89. Truly a superb article, but what else would one expect from this site? Your editor has a good eye, consistently. That said, you’re a great writer :-)

  90. Stunning stuff, and I’m with Laura: us ladies need constant entertainment, keep it coming :-)

  91. Oh these fascinate…twisty little things, so fun

  92. Your pangrammatic word ladder blew my mind.

  93. All those beautiful articles you’ve written, what a delightfully lovely mind.

  94. Reminded me of the old “Be Alert – your country needs lerts” and “Be Aware – your country’s got enough lerts”. Clearly WARE is the way to go.

  95. Lovely always, dear wordnerd.

  96. Cracking good stuff

  97. Oh thank you Chris Hancock, great entertainment.

  98. *sits on edge of seat waiting for you to write definitive anagram article next*

  99. I think that what whit wait wart ward word gets you there one ‘rung’ quicker.

  100. Great stuff, always a pleasure reading you.

  101. Not entirely sure I like some of the sexist ‘jokes’ in the comments, but I know I like your column, your style, your wit, your wisdom.

    • Fair point, Daisy. They were meant to be taken as “tongue in cheek” – hopefully with a winking emoticon to signal that – but it’s never my intention to offend so I’m sorry. Thanks for the compliments :-)

  102. Thanks Chris

  103. I’ve always thought Carroll must’ve been on drugs, but hey, if it benefits us, who cares, right? :)

  104. Your quite good at this article writing, thanks!

  105. Wow. Cool site and nice piece. Never knew so many wordnerds abounded.

  106. Best read this week, thanks!

  107. Do you do these often? Word ladders I mean, not articles, I am very aware of how often you do those, as I anxiously await each one!

  108. Thanks Chris for my dose of happy!

  109. Oh for a Vanity Fair that published charming letters from authors about odd little word games and not the fashion peddling monstrosity of today.

  110. Why Chris, I’ve just read all your pieces and I think I may be the slightest bit in love.

  111. Ooh, this excite me! Is that sad? I am sad, aren’t I. I just squealed over word ladders.

  112. Love this, thank you darling Chris Hancock!

  113. Superb, Chris, don’t ever stop.

  114. My my, you sure have gone and got yourself a right lot of fans, Mr Hancock. Much deserved, you still put a grin on my gizzog.

  115. What I meant was, are these things you yourself do a lot for fun?

    • Ahh, sorry! The honest answer is I probably don’t do them that often. But every now and then I’ll see two words of the same length and think “Hmm… can I build a Word Ladder here?”. Strange but true :-)

  116. Told my mum I got a love letter from my ideal man. She laughed like a hyena.

  117. Jolly good stuff. I like your work.

  118. You have a great eye

  119. You thrill delight and amuse :-)

  120. Day made, thanks!

  121. Comment read… my day made. Thanks, Kyra! :-)

  122. Hi Chris, a huge fan here. I work with Pearson, and would love to speak to someone at the site about that book.

  123. Thanks for linking to my solver! :)

    I’m thinking about extending it to deal with different length starting and finishing words – it would work as at present but also allow a steps that, instead of changing one letter to another, would either add or remove one letter.

    • Thank you! You’ve done a great job, there. I was a little worried we might send you too much traffic and crash your server.

      I’ve seen that add/remove variant of the puzzle. I guess it wouldn’t be hugely difficult to extend what you currently have. Just as long as the ability to keep it to the classic form is made available. Go for it! :-)

  124. Hi Chris

    Been reading your beautiful articles. It is evident how much you do love letters and words, and I’m so grateful that you’ve been sharing that passion with us. Thank you.

    • Hi Andy! That’s very kind of you. It’s great to discover that so many people share my passion for words, and take the time to read the articles and make comments. Thanks again!

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