Tips for learning words

By John Fultz
Last modified on Monday, October 23, 2006

I'm always on the lookout for easy ways to remember lots of words. Here are some connections I've come across to help me remember groups of words. I came by most of these independently, but I attribute credit where I got help. These are sorted roughly from beginning to advanced word knowledge.

Seven 2s and 3s for free

If you don't know your 2-letter words, a quick lesson often suggested is to remember that all of the tones of the musical scale are valid two letter words. That is to say, DO, RE, MI, FA, SO, LA, and TI. I've seen this bit of advice often, but I've never seen anybody point out that every tone of the musical scale also takes an S, granting you easy memory of seven uncommon 3-letter words.

I Am, You Are

There are only two uncommon 3-letter words which end in IA (plus the common one, VIA), and only two 3-letter words which end in YA. Each of these words is a noun which takes an S as its plural.


I see ICY

Credit: Ed Wilhite, Matthew Ridout

I've gotten burned on this a few times. It's often easy to forget how to spell DICEY. The easy rule is, ICY takes no single-letter front hooks.

Xtra words

There are 32 3-letter words ending in X. All but two take an ES extension. The two exceptions are SOX (already a plural, of SOCK) and VOX (plural is VOCES). The remaining 30 words (many common, although not all common words are common when adding ES) are:


Two-for-one Z and K study

The 4-letter Z list has 87 words in all. Here is a list of the 68 words I would judge to be at all uncommon. You'll probably recognize some of these because I used fairly generous criteria for uncommonness...and yes, uncommonness is a legal Scrabble word.


Not too hard to learn. But, here's something interesting. Drop all of the words that end in S, Y or Z (i.e. ending letters which rarely allow for trivial S back-hooks to make a plural).


With the exceptions of ZOIC, which is an adjective (pertaining to animals or animal life), and ZONA, whose plural is ZONAE, every single one of these words takes an S end hook...i.e., they are all either nouns which take an S plural, or verbs whose present third-person singular tense is expressed as an S hook. Bam! You now know 27 5-letter Z words (28 if this rule helps you to remember ZONAE).

Similarly, every single 3-letter K word (quite a few are uncommon) takes and S backhook except for the following five: EEK, ICK, KAS, KEX, SKY

DIVING for plurals

Credit: Marty Gabriel for DIVING, Nick Ball for HIKING

It can be very confusing figuring out what verbs that take an ING also take an INGS. Sometimes the ING form is also a common noun, like WINNING, as any Scrabble player with tournament WINNINGS can attest to. But so many seem arbitrary (why on earth PETTINGS is good but FEEDINGS* isn't is beyond me). But here's one good rule. If an ING word can be considered to name a sport, even an obscure one, it takes an S. Known exceptions are DIVING, HIKING, LUGEING, LUGING, and TEEING. Examples include CURLING, HURLING, WALKING, RUNNING, BLADING, WHALING, SURFING, and ANGLING as well as the more mundane GOLFING, HUNTING, BOATING, CYCLING, SKATING, and FISHING. This is far from a complete list, so if it can at all be considered a sport, then go for it!